At the September 9th Board of Trustees meeting Kate Hartwyk, deputy director of the Essex County Department of Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs, gave a presentation – without slides or plans – of the Turtle Back Zoo expansion into South Mountain Reservation. Noting that the zoo had almost been shut down twenty years earlier, Hartwyk talked about how the county had vastly improved it and had helped it get accreditations from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, the Zoo and Aquarium Association, and the American Humane Certified program. The purpose of the proposed amphitheater, Hartwyk explained, is to bring in more Essex County students for educational programs and be able to teach them more about zoology, animals, and the environment. The classroom facilities currently at Turtle Back Zoo can accommodate no more than 150 students at a time; Hartwyk said that an amphitheater could accommodate 300 to 500 students. The amphitheater would be used mostly between April and June.
Skeptical village trustees had numerous questions for Hartwyk, few of which she answered directly. Trustee Steve Schnall, concerned about the enlarged footprint that the amphitheater would produce, asked for a map of the proposed facility, and Hartwyk said that the plan was still in the works and that no details were as yet available. She also sought to reassure Trustee Donna Coallier that landscape architects were working on drainage issues and the impact on green space but failed to address Trustee Coallier’s concerns that environmental experts were not included. Trustee Walter Clarke asked about the possible displacing of local flora and fauna, and Hartwyk replied that that the aquatic tanks that were originally planned for the facility were being scaled back in recognition of that issue. And when Trustee Bob Zuckerman asked who was demanding this additional educational space, Hartwyk said that the accrediting bodies were demanding it.
“The passive act walking through the zoo and just kind of observing animals is not reaching those students in terms of inspiring them to action,” she said. She added that a master plan for the zoo was slated to be released at the end of 2019.
Village President Sheena Collum had numerous questions for Hartwyk. She asked her if anyone had seen the draft of master plan, and Hartwyk explained that it was still being revised. President Collum wanted to know more about the $600,000 contract for the design of the amphitheater, and what had been scaled back. Hartwyk said that many items were scaled back or eliminated, such as a large pool, which was removed, as were smaller pools, while other items such as lighting systems for the amphitheater, a roof structure for the stage, and LED panels, were still being addressed, so the $600,000 contract was not reduced. Hartwyk also said that the county intends to move forward with the project regardless of public opinion, though the public could still offer its input on it.
Members of the public were divided on the project, with Turtle Back Zoo volunteer Lisa DeVos defending it as a way to educate children better about the study of animals and local resident Dan Bietrich suggesting that more volunteer staffers could walk students around and explain the animals to them, which he said would cost less. Dennis Percher, chairman of the South Mountain Conservancy, said that the project, which would add an extra acre to the 28-acre zoo, said that while the impact on South Mountain Reservation would be negligible, the effects of traffic and congestion in the St. Cloud area of West Orange also needed to be factored in.
At the end of the meeting, President Collum acknowledged that South Orange and other Essex County municipalities have limited influence over the Turtle Back Zoo expansion, but she encouraged residents to get involved by going directly to the county and to also possibly volunteer for the county’s environmental commission to leverage its interests. She proposed that South Orange send a letter to the county in place of a formal resolution making a statement about the zoo. Trustee Clarke thought that the county had the opportunity to produce a worthy expansion of the zoo, so long as it was done right and did not have an impact on the environment.