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Opponents Continue to Protest Turtle Back Zoo Amphitheater Project After Freeholders Approve $8.4M Funding

On January 21, 2020, Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. hosted a community meeting on proposed plans to build an $8.6M 500-seat “Conservation Pavilion” amphitheater at the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange. A super majority of Essex County residents who took to the microphone that night expressed their opposition to the project as well as further expansion of the zoo.

However, the next day, the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders approved the appropriation of $8.4M for the project (see ordinance attached below) and posted a request for proposals for a the Conversation Pavilion project on January 28.

Last summer, local residents lodged objections to the project at meetings of both the County Open Space Advisory Committee and the Freeholders when $600,000 in County Open Space funds were allocated for design for the project. A petition against the project organized by Our Green West Orange is nearing 12,000 signatures. The Maplewood Township Committee passed a resolution last year asking the County to suspend plans and again asked the County to “pump the brakes” on the project in January.

(Village Green reached out to DiVincenzo’s press officer for a comment from the County Executive after the January 21 meeting and will update this story when we receive a response. )

“A very disappointing revelation and a disconcerting development that the night after 35 people showed up at a county-lead hearing to express their deep concerns about this project, the Freeholders voted to approve it,” Maplewood Township Committee member Nancy Adams told Village Green. “Those present were nothing but impressively knowledgeable and concerned citizens who took the time to come out (on several occasions) to try to get the county to at the very least incorporate several modifications they recommended to make this unnecessary and expensive project better for everyone. Apparently if didn’t make a difference.”

Local residents, however, are continuing to protest the project, with a “Rally to Save South Mountain Reservation” scheduled for March 1 at noon at the Zoo.

According to a press release on the “Rally at the Rez”: “Organizers are demanding that Essex County stop construction of a planned $8.5 million taxpayer-funded amphitheater in the reservation, construction of which would destroy 1.5 acres of open space in the historic reservation, in addition to the over 25 acres that have already been consumed by Zoo expansion. Student speakers will address the conservation issues such as protecting the reservation, humane treatment of animals, flooding, congestion and noise, as well as climate change implications. This is a family friendly event! Participants should bring signs stating their support. Free parking available in parking decks or on Cherry Lane, opposite the playground. More information at https://coalitionsmr.org/.”

Joyce Rudin of Our Green West Orange is helping to organize the rally. Rudin explained that the youth leaders are from the Coalition to Save South Mountain Reservation. They are Andrea Rebimbas and Zoe Newman from Columbia High School and Svan Mura from Roosevelt Middle School in West Orange. “We have 18 coalition members which are listed on our website coalitionsmr.org,” Rudin wrote in an email, “The coalition represents in total several thousand members. Hard to say exactly. Each group has a membership ranging from hundreds to thousands.”

At the January 21 community meeting hosted by DiVincenzo,  numerous Maplewood — and other County — residents asked DiVincenzo to slow or drop the project altogether. According to Maplewood resident Virginia Falconer, approximately 200 people were present at the meeting which ran from 7:00 am to 10:00 pm at Essex County Police Academy in Cedar Grove. There was a brief presentation of the proposed Conservation Pavilion led by the Deputy Director of Essex County Parks Kate Hartwyck. DiVincenzo did not speak at the meeting. According to the County Executive’s press officer, the meeting was not recorded.

DiVincenzo and zoo docents have argued that the expansion including the pavilion is needed to provide educational opportunities — particularly to lower-income County students. DiVincenzo wrote in a letter to Our Green West Orange: “Schools and organizations that are booking trips to Turtle Back expect a more interactive learning experience than just having children walk along the pathways and read signs about the animals. In addition, the creation of the Conservation Pavilion is not geared toward attracting additional visitors. Rather it is to provide those who already come with an opportunity to attend an educational program. The planned 500-seat addition will provide the opportunity to significantly increase the children we currently reach with our educational programming and help satisfy requirements of the three nationally recognized organizations that accredit the zoo. We further note that the Conservation Pavilion is not going to be used for entertainment, concerts or Broadway productions.”

Falconer reported that, of approximately 50 public comments at the January 21 meeting, 40 were opposed to the pavilion and other planned construction “on the grounds of: impacts to the reservation, lack of transparency of use of government funds, lack of process which includes public input, the lack of a master plan for either the Turtle Back Zoo or the South Mountain Reservation (and therefore no limit on the zoo’s eventual buildout), Many people also commented on the fact that no other large zoos have large auditoriums because it simply is not an effective way to teach children. Many speakers expressed frustration about traffic congestion, light pollution and noise.”

Falconer said, “The commenters who were in favor of the pavilion were all either docents or teachers at the Essex County Technical Schools. I don’t believe there was even one member of the general public who spoke in favor.”

She added: “It is so strange to me that the issue is being framed as pro- and anti -zoo/education, especially when all the speakers who opposed the proposal went out of their way to express appreciation for the zoo and admiration for the staff.”

Maplewood Is Green leader Tracey Woods told Village Green, “It was heartwarming to see how many Maplewood-South Orange residents were willing to travel half an hour each way on a weeknight to defend the South Mountain Reservation, support responsible use of taxpayer money, and demand that the will of the public not be ignored.”

Students from Maplewood Leo Sommerheil and Kate McManus advocating for “environmental responsibility” at the Turtle Back Zoo meeting, January 21, 2020.

Adams said she was speaker #35 at the January 21 community meeting. She told the Executive, “For the first time since I was elected almost 5 years ago, I am missing my Township Committee meeting, but I thought it was important to be here to speak on behalf of my colleagues and my constituents. I was going to read to you the letter that was delivered to the county today from the Maplewood Township Committee expressing concerns we agreed on particularly the need for the County to slow down, do more studies, consider fixing up existing facilities, and most importantly listen to the public’s concerns and work to address them.”

Adams noted, “The condition of the Reservation, stated by other speakers, is really bad and yet we’re about to spend $8 million on an additional facility instead of maintaining and taking care of the paths, vegetation, trees and all that already exists in the reservation. If this project moves forward, it would be important for the County to halt any FURTHER development proposed in the Master Plan and instead dedicate the necessary funds to replenish, maintain and restore the reservation to its former beauty.” (See Adams’ full remarks below.)

Other South Orange-Maplewood commenters included:

  • Eli Goldstein, an architect from Maplewood, who emphasized the need to make the structure sustainable and suggested a green (planted) roof and permeable paved surfaces beneath, which would eliminate the need for a detention basin.
  • Jonathan Poor of Maplewood, who stated: “The three largest buildings at the zoo are parking decks. It’s a car zoo.”
  • Jane Conrad Poor of Maplewood suggested that the reservoir abutting the zoo be used as an outdoor classroom and learning lab for students in lieu of constructing the pavilion.
  • David Niles of South Orange said: “Of the large zoos that Turtle Back Zoo aspires to be like none of them have large educational facilities like what’s proposed here. Small classrooms work best.”

Full comments of Nancy Adams:

For the first time since I was elected almost 5 years ago, I am missing my Township Committee meeting, but I thought it was important to be here to speak on behalf of my colleagues and my constituents. I was going to read to you the letter that was delivered to the county today from the Maplewood Township Committee expressing concerns we agreed on particularly the need for the County to slow down, do more studies, consider fixing up existing facilities, and most importantly listen to the public’s concerns and work to address them.

This administration’s improvements to our parks, golf courses and the zoo are very much appreciated. The comments and concerns of the Maplewood Township Committee are NOT a criticism of the County but rather a concern with regard to this project and its impact on the Reservation and our constituents.The letter from the Township Committee was delivered to the Freeholders and County Executive today, but I want to express my concerns as a resident and elected official who is listening to my constituents on environmental and other issues with the expansion of the zoo footprint into the Reservation. I urge our Essex County elected governing body, the Freeholders, to ALSO listen to those who elected you.

Storm water runoff is a big problem already, one that we are having to address in our own municipalities with our budgets as climate change causing stronger storms and over-development are producing more runoff than our existing infrastructure can handle. Flooding is already happening in neighborhoods where it hadn’t before. Creating more impervious surfaces exacerbates this issue and it will impact all neighborhoods downhill from the Zoo.

The need for a traffic study is essential since the potential increase in attendance expected will not be handled by increased parking garages as explained.

The condition of the Reservation, stated by other speakers, is really bad and yet we’re about to spend $8 million on an additional facility instead of maintaining and taking care of the paths, vegetation, trees and all that already exists in the reservation. If this project moves forward, it would be important for the County to halt any FURTHER development proposed in the Master Plan and instead dedicate the necessary funds to replenish, maintain and restore the reservation to its former beauty.

I won’t go into all the very valid and informed opinions others mentioned in opposition to the expansion, most know much more than I do and I share their stated concerns. I agree that the county should listen to this valuable input and seriously consider altering their plans to incorporate those suggestions.

But I would like to end with a quote by John Muir known as the father of national parks who said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal & give strength to body & soul.” He also said, “In every walk with nature, one receives FAR more than he seeks.” He didn’t express these thoughts about more development, but in advocating for less.

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