MILLBURN, NJ — Since the announcement of planned construction of an amphitheater at Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, county residents have been advocating for a stoppage to what they see as an over-expansion of the once-quaint zoo.
At Tuesday night's Millburn Township Committee meeting, attendees heard from Leonard Luciano, the freeholder for the fourth district of Essex County. Luciano was invited to the township meeting by committee members to present, since the timing of meetings on the project often conflicts with meetings in Millburn.
The issue at hand revolves around the plan from the freeholders to cut down an acre of over 100 mature trees in the reservation alongside the current zoo property line to create an amphitheater style space where larger groups of school children can come and see the animals in the zoo up close, in line with increased demand.
During the presentation, Luciano drew on his experience as a schoolteacher, saying that when he took his students on field trips to the zoo, multiple classes also attempted to access the earning center, leading to backups and an inability for everyone to learn about the animals.
As Luciano noted in his presentation, one of the recommendations made for the project was to plant new trees to replace the ones cut down at a ratio of 4:1, meaning some 500 new saplings would be planted in the area of the amphitheater if the plan goes through. As he said, the freeholders are concerned with making sure the environmental impact is minimized.
Another aspect Luciano mentioned was that the county has applied for and received a $4 million dollar grant from the state which they intend to use for construction costs if the project is approved. With the grant money in hand, the county is now putting out a call for bids on the project.
For residents in Essex County towns bordering the reservation, a chance to speak to one of their freeholders is key, and the meeting attendees that remained during the presentation asked questions of Luciano about the matter.
Luciano and several other spoke with TAPinto after the meeting to share their thoughts. For the freeholder, he felt like the night was a success, as it allowed him to bring the dialogue about the proposed construction project to residents.
"I want to thank Deputy Mayor Prupis for inviting me here tonight and Mayor Lieberberg for having me at their meeting," Luciano said. "I've sat as a county legislator for nine years and countless times, we've had projects and issues in the community where it's educational for members to hear my opinion and where I'm going with my vote, but also for me to hear their concerns and their opinion as to what we're doing. So I think tonight was a homerun."
However, members of the community attending the meeting left with a differing impression. One of those attendees was Phil Kirsch. Kirsch has been one of the most vocal Millburn residents on the issue of the proposed amphitheater, and said that while there was dialogue at Tuesday's meeting, he is not sure how much of it got through.
"I feel like Mr. Luciano listened, but I feel that it basically seems like he's convinced for whatever reasons that it should go forward," Kirsch said. "He said that the freeholders were pretty much unanimous on it. So, I think that we can still make an impact, but I think the impact might be for them to listen to some recommendations, and if we don't stop the expansion this time, they'll think more about it next time. So I think we can definitely still have an impact."
Kirsch's issue with the amphitheater is that he does not know when the freeholders will begin to slow their renovation and construction at the site.
"My issue is that [expansion] doesn't seem to stop," Kirsch said. "And we've reached the point where it just has to stop, before it has too much of an impact on the reservation and our environment as a whole. And I think sometimes in their enthusiasm with the project and the success of Turtle Back Zoo, they lose sight of what needs to be preserved."
Another person who spoke out at the meeting was Virginia Lamb-Falconer of Maplewood. Lamb-Falconer is an environmental educator and a member of SOMA action. She has also joined the Coalition to Save South Mountain Reservation, a group that opposes the amphitheaters' construction.
In addition, the group has also started a change.org petition that has garnered more than 11,200 signatures as of press time.
For Lamb-Falconer, her reason for opposing the amphitheater's construction is that in her opinion, the resources that would potentially be used for the amphitheater's construction could be used elsewhere in the reservation by the county, while still accomplishing the same goal of wildlife education.
"I guess I feel the value of true conservation nature education is best done in natural areas," Lamb-Falconer said. "And we really need to value the reservation and take care of it the way we should be. [The reservation] is a very degraded environment, and the county doesn't put any resources into it, because it's not sexy enough I suppose. But it needs our care and it needs our stewardship."
As for Luciano's return to Millburn to discuss future updates to the project, he said that any time the township wants him back again, he will look to clear his schedule and return for a follow-up presentation.