WEST ORANGE, NJ – A resolution urging Essex County to “present a Master Plan for public review and consideration by the Planning Board along with a traffic study [and environmental impact study] before any further development plans are presented” for the expansion of the Turtle Back Zoo was adopted by at 4-1 vote during this week’s township council meeting.

Councilwoman Michelle Casalino, who was the sole dissenter, voted against passing the resolution because she believes that it will affect the township’s relationship with the county. According to Casalino, having a good relationship with the county requires “constant communication and dialogue,” which she said is accomplished simply by calling freeholders when concerns arise.

“As an elected official, I have a tough time telling other [branches] of government how to do their job, and I feel this resolution does that,” she said.

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Councilwoman Susan McCartney responded that the resolution is a request to the county so that the county officials can prioritize their master plan before moving ahead into “any of the acreage” of the South Mountain Reservation.

In response to public comments that have been made during previous council meetings, Council President Jerry Guarino made sure to clarify that although many West Orange residents feel the need to take ownership of the Turtle Back Zoo, the zoo—and, by extension, the South Mountain Reservation—belongs to all 880,000 residents of Essex County.

“I believe in our responsibility to work with the county to see that South Mountain Reservation Recreation Complex provides cultural, educational and recreational enjoyment to the public—the entire public, all 880,000 residents in the County of Essex—and at the same time preserve and support the reservation’s ecosystem,” said Guarino, adding that the reservation “was not created to be looked at,” but to be “used for recreational [and] cultural experiences.”

Guarino also added that residents had reservations about the county’s involvement in fixing The Waterfront on the reservation.

“That had an effect on the ecosystem,” he said. “That was a reservoir, but the county made an effort in cleaning up the reservoir that was totally polluted and not usable, now to an area where people can come and fish; people can come in and walk their dogs, too.”

Guarino ultimately gave the county the benefit of the doubt, and added to a point that Casalino had made, saying that he would like to see if the parking structure being built at the zoo will improve traffic concerns.

During public comment, Essex County Director of Public Information Anthony Puglisi once again came before the council to clarify some points made by other residents who came to comment.

In response to comments about the zoo being dependent on taxpayers’ money, Puglisi clarified that the zoo is “self-sufficient” because of “all the revenue that comes into the zoo,” which includes admission fees, grants and other streams of revenues that are received from McLoone’s Boathouse, the Treetop Adventure course and the Mini-golf course.

“If you look at zoos across the country, a lot of zoos are not profit-making entities,” said Puglisi. “So, without these additional attractions they would not survive. That’s what we mean when we say self-sufficient.”

He added that the county believes that the zoo is also an economic engine with “all the goods and services that the zoo needs to operate.”

“A lot of local businesses do have contracts at the zoo, and there’s a lot of restaurants [that] do benefit from the 900,000 visitors that come to visit the site and the additional million people who come to the Richard J. Codey Arena,” he said.

Puglisi also commented on the situation surrounding the proposed amphitheater at the zoo, which he said “hasn’t even been designed” as of today. He explained that the county always presents plans before the planning board as a courtesy review, but only when a plan is nearing completion.

“The contract that was given, that was awarded to the engineering firm, covers a wide scope of services, starting with surveying the property to see if it’s feasible, then designing it, then helping us through the construction and so forth,” said Puglisi. “We’re still really at the very beginning of this design phase. So, there really is nothing to present to anyone at this point except the concept, which is a 500-seat amphitheater with some space for animals to be kept before they are part of educational presentations.”

In response to another comment about the proposed grizzly bear exhibit, Puglisi said that the exhibit was “never presented to the planning board because it was never designed” and that it was “officially withdrawn from Green Acres.

“[The county is] no longer being considered for funding for that,” he said.

In other news, the council also voted 4-1 to grant $8,000 to West Orange’s Luna Stage in order to support its theater programs.

The Township of West Orange also proclaimed that the week of Sept. 8 thru Sept. 14 was National Suicide Prevention Week thanks to the efforts of West Orange Human Relations Commission Chairwoman Tammy Williams and her organization, the West Orange Suicide Advocacy Coalition.

Throughout the month, individuals and organizations will draw attention to the problem of suicide and advocating the prevention of this terrible tragedy. In West Orange, these activities will culminate with a 5K Walk/Run for Zach Massader, on Sunday, Oct. 6 at Rock Spring County Club located at 90 Rock Spring Road in West Orange.

Zach was born and raised in West Orange and graduated from West Orange High School. He died by suicide in February of 2018. More information about this event will be shared in an upcoming article.