WEST ORANGE, NJ – During public comment at last week’s West Orange Township Council meeting, several residents came out to express their feelings on the proposed $8 million amphitheater for the Turtle Back Zoo.
West Orange resident and township advocate Harvey Grossman best embodied the overall feeling about the amphitheater, which is that “it will have a detrimental effect on the town.”
Grossman explained that the proposed structure—which might receive a $4 million grant from Gov. Phil Murphy to offset the cost—will “exacerbate the traffic problems” on Northfield Avenue and Pleasant Valley Way “because it’s another attraction and it’s another step toward transforming the zoo and recreation area into an amusement park,” Grossman said.
Grossman added that in addition to being used for animal exhibition, the amphitheater will also serve for concerts that he believes will adversely affect the St. Cloud section of township due to noise disturbances.
He also echoed the complaints of many of the other residents in attendance that were worried about the impact that the development will have on the environment. Other concerns include flooding that has resulted from the reduction of trees for the project.
According to Grossman, residents of West Orange and the surrounding towns that share the land that makes up the South Mountain Reservation—including Millburn, South Orange and Maplewood—have attended previous Essex County Planning Board and Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders meetings to express their feelings about these issues.
Grossman suggested that the council “pass a resolution in opposition” of the proposed amphitheater because “nobody wants this application except for the County Executive [Joseph DiVincenzo, Jr.],” he said.
“We have to stop it,” said Grossman. “We have to protect the reservation and we have to protect ourselves.”
In response to the public comments, Anthony Puglisi, Director of Public Information for Essex County, came to “set the record straight.”
“The reason for the amphitheater is to strengthen our education program,” said Puglisi, adding that the Turtle Back Zoo is accredited by three national agencies: the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), the Zoological Association of America (ZAA) and American Humane, which all stress the importance of “conservation and education.”
In the zoo’s current amphitheater, Puglisi said there is “no real traditional seating” because people sit along a bank that only allows about 200 visitors to be able to “sit around the amphitheater at a time.”
“On a given day, we would get between 2,000 and 3,000 school children who come on school trips or recreation programs,” said Puglisi, clarifying that this means less than 10 percent of children who visit the zoo “have an opportunity to participate in an educational program.”
According to Puglisi, a larger amphitheater with more seating would allow parents and their children to see upcoming programs.
Puglisi emphasized that no plans have been made to build the amphitheater because “a site has not been picked out,” but said that a consultant hired on July 10 has been asked to “determine which site is feasible and if this project is feasible.”
In response to comments about how the amphitheater will be used as an entertainment space, Puglisi once again reiterated that the amphitheater will only be used for “educational purposes.”
“Other speakers had talked about the traffic,” said Puglisi. “We understand that’s an issue. Currently under construction is a new 500-car parking garage, and we see that parking garage as helping reduce the traffic impact along Northfield Avenue.”
He continued that one of the most prominent issues with traffic has to do with recirculation of traffic that occurs when the existing parking garage is filled, which forces cars to go back onto Northfield and causes backups in traffic.
“We’re hoping that with this additional space on site, there will be less recirculation and there will be better passage through that area,” he said.
Puglisi concluded by saying that the West Orange municipality will have a say on improvements made to the plan as the project moves forward; but before any developments can be done at the zoo, all plans are first given to the Essex County Planning Board.
This topic is on the agenda for this Thursday’s Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders meeting to be held in Livingston at 7 p.m. at Livingston Town Hall, where the public is invited to voice their opinions.