WEST ORANGE, NJ – Tuesday’s West Orange Township Council meeting saw residents who were adamant about expressing their opposition to the proposed $8 million amphitheater at the Essex County Turtle Back Zoo, which is projected to take up one acre of space in West Orange.
Essex County Public Information Director Anthony Puglisi once again came in front of the council to explain that the proposed amphitheater will be able to address the zoo’s needs, as it will be able to accommodate more people for the sake of educational programs.
“The role of the zoo has changed throughout the years,” said Puglisi, adding that visitors and schools want to do more than “walk around and look at the animals and…read the little placards.
“Schools want more of an interactive experience. They want students to interact with the animals, get more up close with the animals. So that’s what this amphitheater is designed to do.”
The zoo’s current amphitheater, which is located near the front entrance, across from the reptile house, is “flawed in its design because it was not designed for education,” according to Puglisi.
“There’s no defined seating—people sit on the ground—and just with that opening [at] the back of the stage, it’s not conducive for animals,” said Puglisi, explaining that animals would need to be brought from another location to the stage before the presentation began. “They need quiet space before the presentation begins.”
He added that the stage is “rarely used for educational purposes,” as it typically uses the classrooms in the recently opened education building. The building, which has four classrooms, “can only accommodate about 500 students per day.”
The proposed amphitheater is expected to have seats for approximately 500 people so that the zoo could reach about 1,500 students with three programs per day, according to Puglisi.
“That still doesn’t fulfill our daily attendance during the height of [the] school year or the height of summer vacation, where we generally welcome about 2,200 students a day from schools, and during the summer from recreation programs,” he said.
In addition, Puglisi explained that the amphitheater—which he reiterated would be used as an “education facility” or “an outdoor classroom”—is necessary to remain accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the Zoological Association of America (ZAA) and American Humane.
When these organizations annually assess “the education programs [and] the advancements that have been made,” Puglisi said the main comment each year is that the county needs to “invest a little more and beef up our educational program.”
Puglisi explained that that the zoo expanded by about 10 acres about 17 years ago mainly for the purpose the “African Adventure” exhibit; and the proposed amphitheater is anticipated to take up one additional acre, he said.
Despite Puglisi’s explanation, several residents, including West Orange mother Jacqueline Hendy, still expressed concern about the environmental impact of building a new amphitheater.
“I’ve lived here about 10 years and in that time, I’ve seen Big Cat County come to the zoo; I’ve seen 10 acres being taken for the African Safari, and now we hear ‘just one more acre,’” said Hendy, who also shared a story of an accident she had with a deer crossing Wyoming Avenue while she was driving with her two children.
She explained that she imagines accidents lie hers will only increase in frequency “as [the county takes] more and more of these animal’s natural habitats.”
Susan Lenczyk, a member of the West Orange Open Space & Recreation Commission, added that there are spaces that are thick with trees that prevent “billions of gallons of water” from running down Mt. Pleasant Avenue. She said that cutting them would create “more hazardous conditions for drivers on an already hazardous section of road.”
Describing a property bordering the top of Mt. Pleasant Avenue on Ridge Road that she claimed “fits the description of the type of property that those who wrote and approved the [Open Space & Recreation] plan,” Lenczyk explained that she is “deeply concerned about the loss of habitat, open space and wild places” as well as the “environmental damage that result in that loss.”
“I ask you to please choose to use this property well,” Lenczyk said to the council, asking for the land to be used as open space. “Let us use it to absorb water to prevent runoff; let us use it to prevent soil erosion; let us use it to provide oxygen; let us use it to combat climate change; let us use it to provide habitats for migrating birds, whose populations have declined due to habitat loss.”
Some residents were also not convinced that the proposed facility would be used solely for education.
“Let’s not be persuaded by [the county’s] continuous cloaking of an entertainment complex with the words ‘education’ and ‘conservation,’” said West Orange resident Sally Malanga. “They’re not doing that.”
“We do not need an entertainment arena there to drag animals on stage basically to make them perform for people,” said resident Gary Van Wyck, adding that the idea of building an amphitheater for education is “a ruse, because X number of kids are coming in on those buses anyway. They’re seeing animals, eating lollipops and will be happy anyway.”
Van Wyck also noted that the zoo has “plenty of educational facilities that are not being used,” including the current amphitheater and the “education center” that Puglisi had previously mentioned. He further claimed that he saw the classrooms being used by employees for their lunch breaks.
Touching on the planned 500-car parking structure—which is expected to be completed in January 2020—Van Wyck mentioned that he does not believe that these additional parking spots will take care of the traffic problem when there are currently “thousands and thousands of cars pouring in on a busy zoo day.”
Others also said that the money allocated to the project—including the $600,000 approved by the Essex County Recreation and Open Space Trust Fund to recommend the hiring of a consultant to conduct a design survey—could be used for better and more important projects.
Although the proposed amphitheater was not an agenda item during Tuesday’s meeting, the council agreed to oppose the construction of the facility after nearly two hours of public comment against it.
Although Puglisi mentioned that the zoo is expected to welcome more than 900,000 visitors for the second time in the zoo’s history this year—with an anticipated revenue of $12 million—it was also noted that, approximately 9,000 people have signed a petition against continued zoo expansion as of this week on change.org.