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Freeholders Allocate $600K in Open Space Funds for Turtle Back Zoo Amphitheater Design Despite Opposition

The Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders voted to approve up to $600,000 in county Open Space funds for the design of a 300-seat amphitheater with a 150,000-gallon acrylic window pool for the Turtle Back Zoo — despite reported “standing room only” opposition to the move at the Freeholders July 10 meeting at the Hall of Records in Newark.

Several Maplewood and South Orange leaders have also expressed their opposition to both the allocation of funds and the proposed project overall. And an online petition by Our Green West Orange titled “No Turtle Back Zoo Expansion” and expressing concerns about the continued growth of the zoo garnered almost 8,000 signatures this spring.

Nonetheless, the Essex County Open Space Advisory Committee had unanimously recommended the allocation at its July 8 meeting despite the protests of local residents who spoke at that meeting.

According to the resolution approved by the Freeholders (see the full resolution below), the design should consist of:

  • “an amphitheater stage with a main pool to be approximately 150,000 gallons. The front wall of the pool shall be acrylic window facing the seating. The amphitheater shall comfortably seat 300 guests. There shall be a roof structure covering the seating as well as the pool and stage.”
  • a stage set that will “include but not [be] limited to LED panel screens with artistic design, various entry points for access, various themed props, custom theatrical sound and lighting package.”
  • A control booth with HVAC at the back of the amphitheater to control  lighting, sound and “special effects.”
  • Four additional elevated stage platforms throughout the amphitheater connected by a chute system and including a stage lift in each.
  • A 5,000 sq. ft. animal support building with various animal habitats for aquatic and terrestrial animals with indoor/outdoor yards, food preparation space, office, garage with loading dock, sky lights, interactive guest space, crate storage, walk in freezer and cooler, restroom and scuba locker room.
  • An HVAC system within the animal support building.
  • Two additional outdoor above ground circular 40,000-gallon pools to be connected to the animal support building and covered with a shade structure.
  • Adequate engineering for vocal and musical performances to “maximize the listening experiencing for the audience.”

Maplewood Township Committee member Nancy Adams spoke at the July 10 Freeholders meeting as a concerned citizen and not on behalf of the Maplewood governing body. Adams explained her position in a comment on a Village Green Facebook, saying she had written to Freeholders Brendan Gill, Wayne Richardson and Patricia Sebold, as well as the Board Secretary Deborah Davis Ford, expressing her concern about the project “eating into too much of the Reservation and the effects of stormwater runoff.”

Adams expressed her concerns about the use of Open Space money for the project as well as the possible exacerbation of traffic issues in the area due to zoo expansion. In her letter to the Freeholders and Davis Ford, Adams wrote, “I’m writing to you to express my deep concern with the constant expansion of development in the Reservation and implore you to vote against this funding at tonight’s meeting.” She added, “I hope you strongly consider the negatives here and where this money can be better used to really preserve open space.”

Maplewood Green Team leader Tracey Woods was also present at the July 10 meeting to protest the further incursion of the zoo into the South Mountain Reservation. Woods told Village Green, “My key point is that the Reservation, not the zoo complex, is the jewel of the County. The reservation is an important carbon and stormwater sink and it needs to be preserved.”

In a comment on another post about the proposed amphitheater, South Orange Village President Sheena Collum expressed support for more coverage of county governance, writing: “The Essex County Open Space Tax for South Orange residents was a 10% increase last year compared to the South Orange increase for our local purposes which was .08%. [I] would LOVE more coverage of county governance.”

Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo sent the following statement to Patch on July 11: “”We are always looking for ways to improve the experience our visitors have at Turtle Back Zoo and have identified the need for a modern amphitheater,” DiVincenzo said. “This would help enhance our educational mission by allowing us to create more dynamic presentations and provide additional seating so larger audiences can participate.” (Read Patch’s full report on the Freeholders’ vote here.)

According to an employee at Freeholders’ office, the resolution allocating the Open Space funds for the amphitheater design services was unanimously approved by the Freeholders who voted (Freeholder Tyshammie L. Cooper was absent, and Freeholder Romaine Graham abstained). The Freeholders voting to approve were Brendan Gill, Wayne Richardson, Patricia Sebold, Rufus Johnson, Robert Mercado, Leonard Luciano and Carlos Pomares.

Some Essex County residents have previously expressed their opposition to further development of the Turtle Back Zoo complex/South Mountain Reservation. An online petition by Our Green West Orange titled “No Turtle Back Zoo Expansion” garnered almost 8,000 signatures this spring.

The petition reads in part:

With 900,000 annual visitors in 2017, the traffic is unbearable for the residents who live nearby. Some wait forty minutes to go past the Zoo.

Traffic is heavier on the arteries through the South Mountain Reservation, a 2000-acre park designed for passive recreation and wildlife habitat.

Residents are concerned that the original intent of the South Mountain Reservation as a passive and peaceful park is being changed, even though it is a 28-acre piece that houses the zoo. The activities on the West Orange portion of the reservation are preventing the peaceful use of the reservation.

Find more information about the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders here. 

Find a list of Freeholder meetings here. 

See the resolution for amphitheater/pool design services here:

Download (PDF, 104KB)

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