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Turtle Back
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Some area residents are fighting the expansion of the Turtle Back Zoo, which will cut into South Mountain Reserve.

By KELLY NICHOLAIDES
For Montclair Local

The Montclair Environmental Commission (MEC) declined to take a stance on backing resistance to Essex County’s planned expansion of Turtle Back Zoo, citing the need to research the issue, but local activists say residents should be concerned.

West Orange residents and Coalition to Save South Mountain Reservation activists Loren Svetvilas and Robert Rashkes asked the MEC at its March 11 public meeting to pass a resolution requesting that Essex County halt its plans to build an amphitheater on 1.5 acres. Opened in 1963 on 1.5 acres, Turtle Back Zoo has since expanded to 40 acres in the 2,110-acre South Mountain Reservation that encompasses portions of West Orange, Millburn and Maplewood, and borders South Orange.

“It has been a battle with developers to stop the county from expanding and planning to cut down over 135 trees on 1.5 acres, with no environment impact study prior to the project,” Svetvilas said, adding that the trees have already been marked for removal and bids for the amphitheater are due March 13. The county may award a contract at its March 24 meeting.

After providing the MEC with a copy of the Millburn MEC resolution in opposition to the zoo’s expansion, Svetvilas said its passage in Montclair would show a sense of “unity” with other Essex County environmental commissions and towns, especially before an election. Newark, South Orange, and Millburn environmental commissions and West Orange and Maplewood town councils passed resolutions, although the wording in them varies.

The Millburn MEC resolution requests that the county halt the project immediately and have an accredited, independent licensed professional firm conduct an environmental impact study. The resolution states, “That absent a finding from said Study that the proposed project will have a net neutral impact on water, air, lighting, groundwater pollution, surface pollution, carbon absorption, open space area and other related impacts, the proposed project be abandoned.”

The Coalition of 18 groups launched a social media “Call to Action” campaign on Facebook and Twitter, urging Essex County residents to call the governor’s office and express their opposition to using $4 million in state funding for the $8.6 million project, sign a petition to stop the amphitheater construction, join the Coalition, and donate to its legal fund and canvassing efforts through CoalitionSMR.org.

Coalition Chairwoman Joyce Rudin of West Orange said Montclair residents should be concerned since they use the reservation for recreation, noting that a zipline Treetop Adventure Course and mini golf addition would have environmental impacts.

“Montclair residents go hiking on South Mountain Reservation and enjoy the quiet, natural environment. While they are not directly impacted by the traffic, noise, and flooding that residents of Millburn and West Orange endure, we are trying to preserve open space during a climate crisis. We need the benefits of trees in the ground,” Rudin said.

Montclair resident Bill Beren, who is co-chair of the Gateway Group chapter of the New Jersey Sierra Club, which is part of the Coalition, has gone bird watching and hiking on the reservation, and noted it should be maintained and used for educational purposes. He said plans for an amphitheater are an ineffective and improper use of tax dollars. “The county says that this will be an interactive educational center, but its 500-seat capacity makes it more of an entertainment venue. In the fine print, the county says the facility can be rented to third parties, and they want to put in lights so it can be used at night. It’s really a boondoggle and ego project for the county executive,” Beren said. “The reservation needs flood control, invasive plant removal, and maintenance of its trails — none of which is being done,” Beren said.

In a letter to Beren, in response to his email asking Freeholders not to build the amphitheater, Public Information Officer Kyalo Mulumba responded, in part, “The Board is satisfied with the Administration’s commitment to replace the trees being removed in connection with the project at a four-to-one ratio. The Board is also satisfied that this project, as others, must meet Department of Environmental Protection guidelines for water management, erosion and water runoff.  While it is not anticipated that the new pavilion [amphitheater] added traffic burden on surrounding roads, the new parking garage at the zoo appears to have eased congestion during some busy winter events.”

Sunrise Montclair co-coordinator Josh Shapiro, a 17-year-old MHS junior, said the group, which is a member of the Coalition, is disappointed that the MEC did not pass a resolution, but ultimately West Orange, Maplewood, and Millburn have direct influence. “The zoo expansion represents a hilarious misuse of government funds and power, and a case study in the undue influence of NJ political machines,” Shapiro said, adding, “We love Turtle Back Zoo, but we view this expansion as reckless, unnecessary, and as a manifestation of New Jersey’s antiquated and deeply broken political system.”

Montclair Local also reached out to mayoral candidates Renee Baskerville and Sean Spiller, but did not receive a response.

Essex County public information officer Anthony Puglisi stated that Turtle Back Zoo contributes to the vitality of the area, creates jobs, supports the local economy and has a tremendous impact in education and conservation. “Our programs meet educational guidelines and trips to the zoo provide a unique learning experience. It is part of our mission to promote education and conservation. We collaborate with several agencies on strengthening species populations, rescuing and nursing animals back to health and provide sanctuary for animals that cannot be released back into the wild.”

He added that the Conservation Pavilion will enable the county to provide additional space so more people have access to attend informative presentations about the zoo’s animals.