Government South Orange

Turtle Back Zoo ‘Habitat’ Amphitheater Has Been Scaled Back, County Official Reports

Plans for amphitheater that would carve about one acre out of the South Mountain Reservation to serve students visiting the Turtle Back Zoo have been scaled back, according to Kate Hartwyk, Deputy Director of the Essex County Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs.

However, the revised plans are not available to the public at this time.

In response to a series of questions from South Orange Village President Sheena Collum at the September 9, 2019 South Orange Board of Trustees meeting, Hartwyk reported that plans for a 150,000-gallon pool and two subsidiary 40,000-gallon staging pools have been scrapped, as have some other aspects of the project.

Those features — which Collum referred to as “Water World” during her comments — were outlined in a resolution passed by the Essex County Chosen Freeholders this past summer allocating $600,000 in County Open Space funds for design services for the project despite community opposition. The detailed resolution was not available to the public or media before the Freeholders’ meeting.

Hartwyk began her remarks by reminding the public and the Trustees that the zoo has been greatly improved under the leadership of Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr.

“More than 20 years ago we were looking at shuttering the doors,” said Hartwyk. Now, the zoo sees nearly 1 million visitors per year and has “met the standards for three accrediting bodies.”

“We are very fortunate to have that facility in our area,” said Hartwyk.

Hartwyk argued that the “Habitat Theater” is needed for student education: “We want to accommodate 300-500 students daily with our animal ambassadors to have more of a hands-on and dynamic experience.”

The South Orange Trustees were clearly not pleased with the process.

Trustee Steve Schnall asked, “Do you want questions?”

Hartwyk answered jokingly, “Not particularly.”

Schnall argued that the County should “provide drawings on the new land that you are developing” to show the impact on the surroundings.

“Unfortunately we are still working out those details,” said Hartwyk.

“I understand you are in the design phase,” said Schnall, “but before a lot of money is spent on design … the community is concerned about the use of the space.”

Trustee Donna Coallier asked if there was an environmental commission or review board that is looking at how the proposed theater would impact green space and surrounding towns’ watershed.

Hartwyk said that there were landscape architects on the project to handle stormwater impacts; however, there was not a group of environmental specialists.

In response to a question from Trustee Walter Clarke on how the project would impact or displace flora or fauna, Hartwyk said, “We haven’t determined how much space yet.”

In response to a question from Trustee Bob Zuckerman, Hartwyk explained that the amphitheater was being constructed not to meet a demand from educators (no teachers, principals or superintendents were asking for the project), but “there is a demand from the accrediting side.” Hartwyk said that students passively walking through the zoo “is not reaching students in terms of inspiring them to action.”

Trustee Karen Hilton asked about a master plan for county parks and questioned “the justification of spending so much on the zoo when there is a lot of need” in other areas.

Hartwyk responded that she was “not really prepared tonight to talk about the master plan for recreation as a whole,” but did say that the County has systematically updated playgrounds throughout the County, has resurfacing basketball and tennis courts — especially in urban areas — and has added dog parks, as well as providing general maintenance such as tree removal, garbage removal, benches, the repaving of Crest Drive in South Mountain Reservation.

Trustee Walter Clarke said he was “concerned about creeping takeover of the reservation itself. … I’m afraid this is coming at the expense of the reservation which is very unique. … It doesn’t have a gift shop and it’s tough to monetize. But as communities are more developed, it is more and more unique and is a unique treasure. If there isn’t any sense of scope and where it stops … that’s my concern.”

Hartwyk said that Clarke could share contact information for environmentalists to involve in the project.

While Hartwyk posited that the zoo did have a master plan, Collum pushed back: “We do not have that. No one from the public has ever seen it.”

Hartwyk said that “a first draft was taken out as part of community meetings held last year,” but that nothing was published at the moment; however, she expected the new zoo master plan to be shared by the end of the year.

Hartwyk also told Collum that the County “fully” intended to move ahead with the “Habitat Theater.”

Collum responded, “So at this point you are moving forward no matter what the public sentiment is?”

“We don’t anticipate it to change the project itself,” said Hartwyk.

Collum explained to Hartwyk that Maplewood and South Orange combined paid a substantial sum to the County in Open Space funds annually but saw little return as they had few “county assets.” Collum said it was therefore “really important to our residents” to see greater transparency and outreach for such projects. “Is there a better method to engage sister communities on these initiatives so that we don’t find out about these things in the news when these large expenses come up?” asked Collum.

Later, during discussion, Clarke said that there needed to be a study “not just into the physical footprint but into the effects on the larger reservation and the area itself. … Bringing more people to the zoo does have an effect and that needs to be considered. …. I would like to have a say in how the project moves along.”

Coallier noted that residents needed to reach out to the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders on this topic, as that body has jurisdiction over County funds.

Ultimately, Collum and the Trustees agreed not to do a resolution to the County on the project — as was done in Maplewood — but to write a letter. “We contribute a lot to the Open Space Trust Fund and we want to have a say, share our thoughts and ideas. I think we can send a letter capturing those thoughts. We don’t need a formal resolution,” said Collum.

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