The Maplewood Township Committee passed a resolution Tuesday night calling on Essex County to suspend all plans for an amphitheater at the Turtle Back Zoo.
Citing the need to preserve the South Mountain Reservation and not take further natural habit away for zoo expansion — as well as the County’s inability to present a Master Plan for the zoo to the public, the resolution read:
“The Township of Maplewood calls on the Essex County Board of Freeholders to be considerably more transparent with plans for future projects, to listen to the public’s concerns before any further development occurs and to suspend plans to expand the Zoo and the Recreation Center into the South Mountain Reservation.”
Mayor Vic DeLuca noted that he was “not opposed to future expansion … but there should be a plan and people should be included. … This is not the time without the master plan. If [the master plan is] going to be ready at the end of the year, we should suspend” the plans for the amphitheater now, said DeLuca.
Maplewood Township Committeeman Greg Lembrich called the proposed amphitheater “a bridge too far.” It’s “ill-considered and it doesn’t have public support,” said Lembrich. “We have to keep up the pressure.”
Lembrich expressed his gratitude to Township Committeewoman Nancy Adams who attended the vote by the Essex County Freeholders in July at which the Freeholders approved the allocation of $600,000 in Open Space funds for design services for the proposed amphitheater. Adams said that the Freeholders approved the allocation despite the room being packed with citizens opposed to the move.
Adams reported to the Township Committee that she has since met with County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. and staff. She said that they showed her a preliminary plan for the amphitheater. They also told her that the proposed amphitheater would take one acre of land from the South Mountain Reservation. Finally, they reported that the zoo master plan would be completed by the end of the year.
“They felt that Maplewood should not pass a resolution against the County,” said Adams, but she countered that the resolution was “not against the county but against the project.”
Earlier in the evening, Maplewood residents as well as several from West Orange thanked the Maplewood officials for taking action. Representatives of the County also spoke and reported that the zoo provides education and conservation to 200,000 children annually, that the zoo is accredited by humane associations and that the County had planted 6,000 trees in the reservation. Officials also spoke of the zoo being in a sad state of disrepair back in the 1980s and in danger of closing when residents asked that it be improved and saved.
A member of Our Green West Orange countered, “There’s no argument that the zoo needed improvements … but enough is enough.”