Government Maplewood

Maplewood Leaders to Call for More Transparency from Essex County Over Zoo Expansion

The five members of the Maplewood Township Committee indicated on July 16 that they were frustrated with a lack of transparency from the Essex County Executive and the Board of Chosen Freeholders over expansion of the Turtle Back Zoo and that they were concerned about continued zoo development impinging on open space in the South Mountain Reservation.

TC members indicated they would be formally adopting a resolution expressing those concerns at their first meeting in August.

The expansion of the zoo has garnered attention — and community backlash — lately around a planned $16M bear exhibit and the allocation of $600K in Open Space funds for design services for a proposed amphitheater that would include a 150,000-gallon pool with acrylic glass, plus attendant staging buildings/areas and state-of-the-art sound, lighting and special effects.

Residents have expressed dismay and even outrage that the County has moved ahead with both projects despite strong opposition and the lack of a completed, updated zoo master plan. Many, including Maplewood Township Committee member Nancy Adams, said they have been unable to obtain any copy of the zoo master plan. (Village Green requested a copy of the updated master plan from the County Executive’s office and was told that it was not yet approved nor available.)

On Tuesday night, Maplewood residents told the TC of their frustrations.

Virginia Falconer, an environmental scientist, told the TC that she was not anti-zoo, saying, “I don’t NOT support the zoo. I just think enough is enough.” Falconer said she had been looking for the zoo master plan and could not find one.

Dennis Percher of the South Mountain Conservancy said the “lack of transparency in terms of long-term planning is my concern. We always find things out after the fact, whether the $16M bear exhibit or car parking.” He also lamented that more resources from the Open Space fund were not going to conservation and restoration of the Reservation. “I want to understand why so much goes to the zoo. The balance is off.”

The zoo, said Percher, is “out of control.”

Maplewood Green Team leader Tracey Woods told the TC, “The reservation is the jewel of the county, not the zoo.” She added that the amount of money spent on the zoo did not mesh “with what the community wants.”

Woods also questioned the Freeholders openness to community voices, saying that “200 people [were] in a room shouting NO and then they all vote YES.” Although Woods was specifically talking about the vote to allocate the $600K for design of the amphitheater, she said that the scenario had played out “again and again” with the Freeholders.

Carrie Gordon noted that she was at a public forum a year ago with the Freeholders at which “people [were] saying, ‘No, don’t expand.'” But the Freeholders had nonetheless approved zoo expansion projects such as the bear exhibit.

Cary Heller, owner of the “Map” building on Valley Street in Maplewood noted similar concerns. “[County Executive] Joe D[iVincenzo] is doing a great job in many aspects, but it’s done after the fact. … I concur with those that have spoken.”

Later in the TC meeting, Committee member Nancy Adams introduced the discussion of the zoo expansion amongst TC members.

“This is an issue that concerns all of us,” said Adams, who noted that instead of zoo expansion, residents like Kelly Quirk had suggested using the Reservation itself as a learning center “rather than building something new.”

Adams said she was concerned about stormwater impact, traffic impact and transparency issues related to the zoo.

Township Committee member Greg Lembrich said that he has been “a big supporter of the zoo. My family absolutely adores the zoo.” However, Lembrich said that while in the past he “felt the county was doing the right thing, I think at this point it’s going too far. … it’s all just too much.”

He added that the County suffers more from a lack of open space — rather than a need for more zoo exhibits and facilities. “I wish we had  more open space … for sports fields, dog park, trails. They idea of taking away from what we have … of all the things we need, this is just a bridge too far for me.” Lembrich said he  would support a resolution by the TC to “strongly urge freeholders against moving forward or using Open Space money on the plans.”

TC member Dean Dafis said, “I think we’re all in favor of a resolution opposing further development in the reservation.”

Added Dafis, “The reservation is our jewel and to keep hacking at it and taking away for these vanity projects, which is what they are, particularly in light of public sentiment against it. … I can think of so many social services that we are not meeting right now.” In particular, Dafis cited the homelessness problem in Essex County.

Deputy Mayor Frank McGehee agreed, saying further zoo expansion “doesn’t represent the greater good.”

Lembrich pointed out, “We are spending millions on bears that don’t want to be here, but can’t spend [it] on habitats for people who want to be here.”

Mayor Vic DeLuca signaled that he did not want to go so far as calling for no development in the Reservation. “I don’t know what that means,” said DeLuca. He said he was in agreement with putting “brakes … on this until there is an overall plan,” but said he would stop short of “no development” as there could be a need for parking for hikers, for example. (Adams later pointed out that such parking can be permeable and not diminish open space.)

DeLuca did indicate that his patience had run out for the many projects at the zoo complex, calling one of the signature additions the “stupid swan park.”

DeLuca seemed to voice support for both the zoo and the Reservation when he stated that a “lot of schools get bused there and this is their only green space. They don’t have safe places where they live. I’m not a big supporter of the County Exec’s picture on all this stuff. … but there needs to be a plan. There needs to be transparency.”

Adams said that she would circulate a resolution that Woods had drafted, with the plan that the TC would vote on it at its August meeting.

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