Government South Orange

South Orange Trustees Indicate Unanimous Opposition to Turtle Back Zoo Expansion

“When it’s unanimous, it’s always nice,” said South Orange Village President Sheena Collum at the Trustees meeting on July 22.

Collum was referring to the six South Orange Village Trustees indicating their opposition to further expansion of the Turtle Back Zoo, in particular, the recent allocation of $600K in Essex County Open Space funds by the Freeholders for design services for a proposed $8 million amphitheater and display pool for animals.

The “Sea World-y situation,” said Trustee Walter Clarke, was something he couldn’t “get behind,” calling using animals as show pieces “creepy.”

Trustees expressed dismay with the continued encroachment on the open space of the South Mountain Reservation, the lack of a Master Plan for both the zoo and the reservation, and what they termed the lack of transparency in the Freeholder’s approval of the funds without a master plan and despite apparent opposition by many County residents.

Trustee Donna Coallier called on the Trustees to pass a resolution expressing their opposition to the zoo expansion. Collum said she would reach out to Maplewood Township Committee member Nancy Adams on a possible joint resolution. Collum said that a resolution would be prepared for a vote at the Trustees’ next meeting, to take place in August.

Before Trustees discussed the topic, Howard Grossman, public advocate of West Orange, spoke to the group about his community’s concerns which included increased traffic issues with growing zoo attendance (approximately 900,000 visitors per year) as well as concerns about negative environmental impacts.

Bill Haskins of the South Orange Environmental Commission told Trustees, “I’m against expansion of the Turtle Back Zoo.” Haskins said that he had been speaking with residents of West Orange and South Orange and was “finding similar sentiments.” Haskins said that habitat loss was one major concern, as was the allocation of funds. “The Reservation needs restoration,” said Haskins. “The reservation is just something incredibly special to our community and the other surrounding communities.”

While noting that a master plan for the zoo was not available, Haskins suggested that there should also be a master plan for the reservation.

“And what about a master plan for all the open space in the county?” asked Haskins, “because all of the surrounding communities make decisions about their open space based on the idea that the reservation is a backstop … and that’s not necessarily the case.”

Collum said that the expansion of the zoo was “not an issue just for West Orange” and that South Orange’s municipal contribution to the county open space fund was about half a million dollars annually.

Noting that she sometimes gets criticized for using social media, Collum said she nonetheless reached out to residents via social media “to get the pulse” on the topic. Collum said that the more than 200 comments in response to a “very balanced” informational post came back about “99.9% very opposed to the expansion.”

Collum said that while “people really appreciate the improvements to the zoo” in recent years (“It was a mess,” said  Trustee Karen Hilton), the zoo was now approaching “being too much and people wanting to preserve natural habitats.” She said that the “appropriation was a concern for me. Our own open space is only $200K annually.” Collum said that Maplewood and South Orange “don’t have a lot of open space” and operate as “donor states” to the county fund: while the towns understood the need to benefit the county as a whole, said Collum, they saw no contribution from the county to local open space.

Trustee Walter Clarke added, “The Reservation is called the reservation for a reason. It’s not just a park. It’s land that was set aside over 100 years ago. … It had to be a radical idea at the time … and yet they had the foresight to call it a reservation. It was intended to be an open space. … to be enjoyed in that way, and the value of that has only increased as our communities have continued to be developed.”

“It really is a jewel,” said Clarke. “The continued encroachment by the county to develop these areas bite by bite has to stop.”

Trustee Summer Jones said that the Freeholders’ move to approve the open space allocation “without a master plan — it really is an issue.”

Trustee Bob Zuckerman noted that, while the county had a “lot to pat our back on” for the improvements to the zoo, he had not heard from anyone in the community who supported the current allocation and further expansion.

Collum also detailed her quest for a copy of the zoo master plan. “Maybe we missed it,” she said. But when she asked Freeholder President Brendan Gill, he “advised that there has never been a presentation of the master plan to the Freeholders.” Freeholder Patricia Sebold told Collum that the master plan was still in draft form, and the office of County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo said, “It is still being worked on.” [Editor’s note: Village Green also has sought a copy of the zoo master plan and received similar responses from the Freeholders and the County Executive’s office; no completed nor draft documents were forwarded.]

“It seems very, very, very significant,” said Collum. “The transparency needs to be there first.”

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