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Residents Decry Lack of Transparency Re: South Mountain Reservation Amphitheater Proposal

Detail from an old trail map of South Mountain Reservation posted on Endangered New Jersey

Essex County residents who showed up to a county Open Space Advisory Board meeting on Monday, July 8, said they were outraged at the lack of information and outreach by the county on major projects such as the newly proposed 500-1,000-seat amphitheater at the Turtle Back Zoo utilizing space in the South Mountain Reservation.

Attendees report that the Essex County Open Space Advisory Board unanimously approved the allocation of $600,000 in Open Space dollars for amphitheater design work, before hearing any comments from 13 members of the public who came to speak.

The proposal next goes to the Board of Chosen Freeholders for a vote on Wednesday, July 10.

Millburn resident Judith Rosenthal said that no plans had been shared with the public, despite requests.

Village Green reached out for plans and details on the proposed amphitheater from Freeholder Patricia Sebold, who responded in part, “There are no plans yet. First someone must be hired to design it.”

Village Green also searched online for the Master Plan for the Zoo, but was unable to find one. According to the Turtle Back Zoo website, a master plan for the zoo was last adopted in 2000. A new Master Plan process was announced in 2018; however, Anthony Puglisi, spokesman for Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, told Village Green, “The master plan has not been adopted yet.” Puglisi did not provide a draft or further information.

Resolution on the agenda for the July 10 Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders meeting agenda

At the July 8 Essex County Open Space Advisory Board Meeting, Rosenthal said she asked “whether we could make our comments prior to the vote on the amphitheater, but that request was denied. Without discussion, the Advisory Committee unanimously voted to approve the $600k for amphitheater design work. Each of the 13 members of the public then spoke.”

Rosenthal said that comments included concerns related to:

  • the South Mountain Reservation as a “carbon” buffer that also serves as a flood buffer;
  • the  amphitheater construction further destroying animal habitat and displacing more deer into neighborhoods;
  • diversion of open space funding (through tax dollars) to destroy open space;
  • building a 500-seat zoo theater that would increase traffic/pollution and decrease property values as the area becomes more congested;
  • noise pollution (people who live in the area spoke about hearing zoo events/music, etc. as late as 10 p.m);
  • animal cruelty (Rosenthal said that a Zoo representative stated that the purpose of the proposed amphitheater is to parade zoo animals in front of elementary school children for “educational” purposes); and
  • continual expansion of the zoo that would violate the South Mountain Reservation’s charter as a “reservation” and wildlife preserve.

Rosenthal reported that Advisory Board members took notes and appeared sympathetic. But she and other residents who oppose the allocation of funds toward the amphitheater at this time said that they were frustrated with the lack of information and what they perceived as a lack of due diligence on this and other zoo projects.

“To my knowledge, the revised Master Plan has not been made publicly available,” Rosenthal told Village Green. She also said that she is not aware of any Environmental Impact Statements being performed or released on any of the zoo or South Mountain Reservation projects in the zoo area. “I have asked for one at every meeting…there are none. The County just goes ahead and builds. This is part of the public’s frustration. Also, given the attention that the environmental has been receiving lately, the proposed Amphitheater is particularly irresponsible.”

Rosenthal later copied Village Green on an email to Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo that read, “Mr. DiVincenzo:  Please withdraw Items #25 and 28 from tomorrow night’s Freeholder Meeting agenda until the public has had a chance to attend a community meeting with you and form a consensus about whether to proceed to with the proposed Amphitheater project in the South Mountain Reservation.”

The Freeholders meeting will take place beginning at 7 p.m., Wednesday, July 10, 2019, at the Hall of Records, 5th floor, 465 Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd. (courthouse complex), Newark, NJ. 

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