MAPLEWOOD, NJ - The Maplewood Township Committee covered numerous topics in its July 16 meeting, and the primary issues discussed did not pertain to pending ordinances or resolutions.  The committee took on the proposal to integrate the fire department with that of South Orange in a shared-series agreement and the growing threat of development in South Mountain Reservation, specifically the expansion of Turtle Back Zoo.

Mayor Vic DeLuca explained that the merger of the two fire departments required a “joint meeting,” or a separate body that would oversee the combined fire department.  He explained that the two municipalities had come up with a framework to allow South Orange firefighters to remain under civil service coverage.  The plan would have a department with 70 firefighters, one fire chief, four deputy chiefs, and an executive officer, with all three firehouses currently in use – two in Maplewood, one in South Orange – to continue operations.

“What we decided,” Mayor DeLuca said, “was that we wanted to make this as simple an administrative level as possible.”  Therefore, the joint meeting would contract services with the two towns.  Maplewood would handle the administration and financing, and South Orange would handle personnel and human resources.  A three-member body would serve as the joint meeting, with one Maplewood resident, one South Orange resident and an independent member.  Mayor DeLuca hoped that a joint meeting could be set up as early as October or November, and he said that he would like to reach out to the state Department of Community Services for legal assistance to get the joint meeting started.

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Mayor DeLuca said he expected a greater savings to both towns and predicted that the combined fire departments would offer improved service. He hoped that there would be a resolution expressing support for the joint meeting prepared by the committee’s August 6 meeting.

Meanwhile, Committeewoman Nancy Adams spoke to the controversy around the proposed expansion of Turtle Back Zoo in neighboring West Orange, which includes, among other proposed amenities, an $8 million amphitheater and a $16 million bear exhibit.  Committeewoman Adams took issue with the further encroachment of the zoo into South Mountain Reservation, one of the few remaining examples of open space in Essex County, and she added that it would have a negative impact on storm water management.  She said she’d spoken to county freeholders regarding her concerns at their July 10 meeting.

The topic brought members of the South Mountain Conservancy to the committee to express their own opposition to the proposed expansion.   South Mountain Conservancy chairman Dennis Perscher said there was a lack of transparency from the county on plans for the zoo and how the money would be spent, as well as increased traffic for the area around the northern edge of South Mountain Reservation.  Virginia Lamb-Falconer lamented the $600,000 proposed for planning and architectural costs. Also, Tracy Woods of the conservancy’s Green Team equated the incremental expansion of the zoo to a piece of the reservation being bitten off.

Other committee members concurred with Committeewoman Adams and the representatives of the conservancy.   Committeeman Gregory Lembrich said that while he’d always supported Turtle Back Zoo, the zoo’s latest expansion plans were “a bridge too far.”  And Committeeman Dean Dafis added his own critique.

“There are so many social services that we’re not meeting right now,” Committeeman Dafis said, most notably homelessness in Essex County.  Let’s put some money into that.”  Lembrich agreed, saying, “We’re not providing habitats for people who live here but we want to spend tens of millions of dollars for bears and other animals that don’t want to be here.”  The committee could very well pass a resolution opposing the expansion of Turtle Back Zoo at its next meeting. 

The committee also discussed funding for the library under the New Jersey Library Bond Act that grants funds to municipalities to expand and improve its library facilities.  Mayor DeLuca said there was a great deal of good in the bond program, but he found some of the rules for applying, such as the caps on square footage, to be detrimental to Maplewood’s vision for its own library.  Deputy Mayor Frank McGehee said that Maplewood should emphasize its role as a community media center by showing how the library functions for its residents.  He said that the draft rules for library funding align well with the idea of equal access for all, and that the township should focus on that.  Committeeman Dafis added that the township should go through the rules carefully and use the opportunity to advocate and create support for the library’s expansion.  The township has until August 30 to submit its comments to the state.

Also, Assistant Township Administrator Glenn Michalowski briefed the committee on improvements to code enforcement feedback.  He said that an effort was being made to communicate better with residents who reported code violations, explaining a computerized service that would allow residents to track the progress of a complaint of a violations.  Residents can sign up for updates from code enforcement department on the progress of complaints being handled, though acknowledgement of complaints and replies regarding the resolution of these cases would be communicated directly by standard e-mail.  

The committee also passed three ordinances on final reading.  One requires businesses to maintain and clean sidewalks in areas of cold-weather enclosures and another applies the same rifles to outdoor dining areas for restaurants.  A third ordinance increases the number of sergeants in the police department through promotions,but does not increase the total staffing of the department.