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CALL TO ACTION: STOP more Zoo expansion: Public Meeting Date & Time below

West Orange, NJ 07052

Environment & Resident Advocacy Organization

Environment & Resident Advocacy Organization

Environment & Resident Advocacy OrganizationEnvironment & Resident Advocacy OrganizationEnvironment & Resident Advocacy Organization
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We have a new local conservation partner!

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Welcome Coalition to Save South Mountain Reservation !

This brand new Essex County conservation advocacy group is a collective of County residents and local organizations that work to protect and conserve South Mountain Reservation. Their sole focus right now is to STOP the construction of the Turtle Back Zoo 500-seat Amphitheater.


Visit them at www.CoalitionSMR.org , on Twitter: @CoaltionSmr & on Instagram: @CoalitionSMR


Please consider donating to their efforts by clicking the donate button below. Thank you!

Turtle Back Zoo Background: Our Green West Orange Statement

South Mountain Reservation, a 2,110 acre woodland replete with waterfalls, forests, picnic and recreation areas and a rich biome was designated at the end of the 19th century.  It is a locale of many historically important sites dating back to the American Revolution.


The reservation was designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed Central Park and other famous preserved lands.  South Mountain has been enjoyed by generations of residents and abuts on six different towns. A small zoo, the Turtle Back Zoo was designed as part of the Reservation on just 15.5 acres and intended as a children’s petting zoo with a fairy tale theme for local children.  The environmental impact of the original zoo was deliberately limited and included a small train that ran through a part of the reservation. 


Since 2003, County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo has used questionable means to clearcut 10 acres of the reservation to dramatically expand the zoo, installing amusement-park style attractions such as a carousel, zip lines, mini-golf, a restaurant, paddle boats and parking structures.  He has also added exotic animals, including many for whom the climate of New Jersey is inappropriate and hazardous resulting in maltreatment and deaths.  In 2017, a giraffe died of a toothache. This summer, a beloved lion died.


The county has claimed that the zoo plays an important role in conservation of animal species and the education of the public on the importance of conservation.  The very fact that so much damage has been caused to preserved land with more to come belies this specious claim. That the Zoo would tout the importance of the environment and its inhabitants, while refusing requests to complete an environmental impact study is unacceptable..


Since the Turtle Back Zoo began its expansion & marketing campaign, human and vehicle traffic to the zoo has increased dramatically and profits have vanished into the coffers of the county rather than being used to increase conservation or benefit the local communities in any way. (Driving along Northfield Avenue on any given "beautiful day" or during the Zoo's holiday light show is proof enough why the County is reluctant to share traffic or crash data.)


Now, the county is set on more destruction paid for by millions of your tax dollars.  An additional 135 trees are to be clear-cut to make way for a 500 seat “Conservation Pavillon”. (A genius marketing ploy for such a destructive project…)


The county argues that the pavilion is necessary to accommodate the supposed educational needs of school and private groups visiting the zoo.  In reality, the proposed pavilion more closely resembles a circus with entertainment-oriented gigantic LED lighting, screens and a  sound system that will further damage and degrade the environment. Neighboring residents, whose lifestyle has already been negatively impact, are concerned about the effect of more noise, light, air pollution, congestion and crowds. 


In addition, the pavilion’s proposed crate-style animal cages (fitted with slamming guillotine gates) highlight that the planned animal demonstrations are really entertainment-oriented performances with wild animals being subjected to stress and cruelty rather than cared for and nurtured.  This is in violation of the newly enacted “Nosey Law,” signed by Governor Murphy to prohibit the use of exotic animals in traveling circus acts. According to the Zoo's written description, there are plans in place to rent out the pavilion for private functions and performances at “premium prices,” further damaging the natural environment. 


Finally, the entire planning process has taken place without any regard to the master development plans of surrounding townships, and was created by planners who are unlicensed in New Jersey.


The “Conservation Pavillon” is anything but. If the county’s plans are allowed to go through, then not only will irreparable damage have been done to one of Essex County’s last natural spaces, but a path will have been paved for further encroachment and destruction.  As a result of the clear-cutting that has already happened, local roads are repeatedly flooded. Further clear-cutting will cause even more damage. Educating children about conservation should not be done at the expense of animals and the environment. We know better, please help educate our elected and appointed officials to know better, too.

The Turtle Back Zoo: Updates, proposals, & impact on our env

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The Facts

The zoo has already been expanded several times. Why does the Essex County Executive want to expand the Turtle Back Zoo yet again?

County Executive Joe DiVincenzo claims that the zoo needs a 500 seat amphitheater to provide education for the thousands of students who visit the zoo each year. However studies show students learn better in smaller settings and there already is a smaller amphitheater in the zoo. 


What sort of education is the County Executive talking about?

Wild animals will be forced into small enclosures and then paraded out before large audiences using strobe & LED lighting rigs, and a full speaker system.


How is this education rather than entertainment?

Its not. Animals being displayed in this way before large crowds have little to no educational value and cause the animals stress and extreme discomfort. In reality, the county plans to rent out the pavilion to private groups. We can expect concerts, parties and other entertainment to take place there as the county collects “premium” rental fees.


Why is such a large amphitheater needed?

The county wants to increase attendance at the zoo from the current 900,000 visitors/year to 1.2 million. This will cause more traffic, sound and light pollution and damage our last large forest. All effecting the suburban neighbors. 

Flooding along Cherry Ln due to  expansion of Zoo parking. (Less trees and pervious surfaces.)

How many trees have to be destroyed for this latest expansion?

At least 135 mature trees and many, many smaller trees, undergrowth, plants and wildflowers; an entire habitat in fact. And this is not the first time. In total, since 2005 more than 10 acres have been destroyed. Hundreds of trees. 


Is that so bad? Doesnt growth have to happen?

The South Mountain Reservation is the last large wild space in Essex County. Already the county has destroyed significant parts of this historic land to build a zip line, mini-golf course, and confined artificial habitats for exotic animal ill suited to our climate. They have taken away a natural resource placed in trust for the citizens of Essex County to make money for the county. Surely land that has already been zoned and developed can be devoted to these purposes, if they are really needed, not this historic Reservation. 


Besides harming trees and animals, what else is wrong with the project?

As we watch an entire continent go up in flames, as the ice caps melt and species are wiped out every few days, do we want to destroy more open space? Trees and plants also absorb and preserve enormous amounts of the most precious resource on the planet: water and they offset tons of carbon dioxide. Now that so many trees have been chopped down, the roads flood after each rain. 


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If the amphitheater is built, will more expansion and more destruction take place?

Looking at how the county has behaved in the past, there is every reason to be concerned that yet more land will be seized for other destructive projects. In fact, their own plan projects development in almost every direction.


What is the name of this amphitheater project?

When the county discovered that many citizens opposed this destructive and unnecessary Amphitheater project, they decided to call it the Conservation Pavilion.” Many people find this offensive: what kind of conservation” destroys natural habitat to put up an entertainment arena? It’s a CON. 


What can we do about all this?

When young people, especially students in Essex County, speak out, it makes a big impact. Students are not a passive audience, they are citizens, leaders and have a stake in the future—their future. The few students protesting at recent Town Council Meetings and hearings have been hard to ignore.


When we attend meetings, what can we say?

Share your feelings about having more land destroyed, more animals mistreated and all in your name and in the name of your education and for the supposed betterment of your home and community. One or two talking points are all that is needed; speak directly from your heart.

South Mountain Conservancy Writes the County

A sample of some of SMC's recommendations for the County:

  • Suspend any zoo expansion until a comprehensive and independent traffic study, as recommended by the master plan, with the input from West Orange, demonstrates minimal or manageable impact of current usage and planned growth.
  • Provide an estimated cost of the pavilion.
  • Tabulate the costs and benefits to the community from the commercial development in the South Mountain Recreational Complex (present and anticipated).
  • Expand the planned 2:1 replacement of trees in any future development. 
  • Reduce by one-quarter the size of the special event parking in order to reconstruct the natural amphitheater along Cherry Lane north of the Oakdale Parking area.

...while we think that the County’s announcement of public hearings on the master plan is excellent, the process from the start should have included stakeholders, both West Orange and the Conservancy. That was not the case. Too much money and precious land is at stake for this to have been developed in a vacuum.

Download PDF
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Controversy Over $8M Amphitheater At Turtle Back Zoo Continues

Maplewood Leaders to Call for More Transparency from Essex County Over Zoo Expansion

Amphitheater At Turtle Back Zoo: 'Education' Or 'Overspending?'

What hasn't been reported in the news...

As reported by Essex County resident Judith Rosenthal, esq. (who was in attendance at both the Essex County Open Space Advisory Board, and the Essex County Freeholders meetings, July 8 & 10, 2019):

  • THERE ALREADY IS AN AMPHITHEATER. Why do we need a second one?
  • There already is a brand new EDUCATIONAL CENTER at the Zoo. If the goal is to educate children about animals, the facility already exists to accomplish that.
  • French & Parillo (which was awarded a $600,000 contract over objections from dozens of members of the public lasting more than an hour), contributed $5,000 to DiVincenzo's campaign. However, the documents supplied by the County to one of the members of the public failed to disclose this fact. She uncovered it through other channels and presented this somewhat embarassing fact at the hearing.
  • Two days before the vote, the County Open Space Committee held a meeting that was also attended by 13 members of the public. The Committee took a vote to approve the above expenditure, but refused to hear from the public prior to voting.
  • At Wednesday night's Freeholder's meeting, at least 20 people spoke out against the project, citing traffic concerns, contribution to climate change from cutting down acres of trees to build an amphitheatre, objecting to using Open Space Funds to eliminate open space by building an amphitheatre, the liklihood of more flooding by elimination of open space, and the sheer beauty, respite and enjoyment of the forest.
  • Leonard Luciano, who represents Millburn & West Orange, took a few minutes away from his non-stop texting during the meeting to tout the educational benefits of parading zoo animals in front of hundreds of children and to support his point, recalled his days as an "educator." This is a material misstatement. His Freeholder web page reveals he was a "Library Media Specialist" with a degree in Humanities (not science) who thereafter went on to hold a position in the Teacher's Union. When confronted with this at the meeting, Mr. Luciano had no response.
  • Freeholder Cooper was the only member to ask intelligent questions challenging the need for an amphitheater (she represents District 3). She abstained from voting "yes" for the expenditures. 
  • Except for Cooper, your Freeholders have no concern for how members of the public feel. They have one constituent: Joseph DiVincenzo. At this point, it is clear that speaking up is a useless exercise. We must vote most of the Freeholders and the County Executive out of office. The communities most affected by Zoo expansion, and their Freeholders are as follows:
    Millburn & West Orange: Luciano
    Maplewood: Wayne Richardson
    At Large: Patricia Siebold (votes with DiVincenzo 99.9% of the time)
    At Large: Rufus Johnson (votes with DiVincenzo 99.9% of the time).
    These are the 4 that need to be targeted in the next election. Our mouths can't do it, but our fingers can (at the ballot box)!"

Freeholder President responds to community

Freeholder President Brendan Gill has issued the following statement in response to community concerns regarding proposed construction and expansion at Turtle Back Zoo:

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