WEST ORANGE — As a popular attraction for day-tripping families and school groups alike, Turtle Back Zoo is moving forward with an educational amphitheater project, which is rankling some area residents concerned about the impact of continued zoo expansion on the nearby South Mountain Reservation.

Essex County Parks Deputy Director Kate Hartwyk said with 130,000 students from New Jersey and the surrounding area attending field trips each year at the zoo, they are looking to better accommodate those visits with a space more appropriate than a classroom, which currently is where such “ambassador animal program” presentations take place.

Hartwick said the planned Conservation Pavilion would support the zoo’s goal of accommodating upwards of 1,000 to 1,500 students in a day.

Overall zoo attendance now is close to 900,000 visitors within a year, according to county officials.

South Mountain Reservation itself is over 2,200 acres of land.

Hartwyk said after being established 57 years ago, over the last 10 to 12 years the zoo “has added some exhibits which have taken space from the reservation to make those improvements.”

How much land, exactly?

Virginia Lamb, of the Coalition to Save South Mountain Reservation, said the zoo has grown from 15 to 45 acres, which has coalition members concerned about the impact of the ambitious changes at the expense of encroaching on the historic passive recreation area.

“It’s not something that they really should be able to continue getting away with, because this is a public trust, this land is to be stewarded by public officials,” Lamb said, who voiced frustration with the project’s momentum despite lingering questions from residents, including some municipal officials.

In September, the West Orange Township Council adopted a resolution calling for the County to “provide a Master Plan prior to any further development plans for the Turtle Back Zoo along with a traffic study and environmental impact study.”

The same resolution called the zoo “an economic engine” for the region, while also calling the South Mountain Reservation “the jewel” of the Essex County park system that needs to be invested in.

The Maplewood Township Committee passed a similar resolution a month earlier. As reported by Essex News Daily, Committeewoman Nancy Adams said regarding the pavilion project, the “biggest concern was the apparent lack of transparency with regard to this project and the lack of the public giving input.”

Hartwick said despite the “repurposing” of some land, it’s still a “net positive,” as Essex County has acquired another 11 acres for the reservation and opened another “55 acres for recreation purposes adjacent to the reservation, as well.”

The Conservation Pavilion has a current cost estimate of $8 million, according to Hartwyk, with $4 million of that earmarked in approved funds from the state Department of Community Affairs.

Essex County has set aside capital funds for the remaining half of the project.

Turtle Back Zoo (courtesy Essex County)

When asked about an environmental impact study for the pavilion, Hartwyk said all those issues are addressed during the design and planning phase, including the “feedback portion,” which already has been done, while following all “state requirements.” She said the pavilion project is out for public bidding, with bids tentatively expected back in mid-March.

“These are not programs that we are adding or looking to draw additional people here to Turtle Back Zoo, this is really deepening the experience that student bodies have when they’re here,” Hartwyk said.

She said serving urban populations that are represented in Essex County, a zoo visit might be a student’s first experience “leaving the school system and seeing wildlife” first-hand.

“There seems to be no end in sight to the development,” Lamb said, adding the land has a lot of significance culturally and environmentally, and that those voicing concerns are worried about lasting impact, including potential erosion, from cutting down more trees for any further zoo expansion.

Lamb said the reservation was “intended as a place of respite,” when it was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the same man who designed Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, as well as Cadwalader Park in Trenton.

Lamb also said grassroots reaction largely has been coordinated by Joyce Rudin, of Our Green West Orange, who has put together a coalition of about 19 groups and organizations resisting further loss of land at the reservation.

Among those who continue to voice their concerns, a rally is being held by youth supporters on Sunday, March 1, starting at noon, outside of the zoo.

In addition to Turtle Back Zoo, which is accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, the South Mountain Recreation Complex in West Orange also includes Codey ice skating arena, MiniGolf Safari, a Regatta Playground, a 1.7 mile walkway, and the Clipper Pavilion picnic shelter.

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