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Essex County Residents Fighting Further Turtle Back Zoo Expansion

WEST ORANGE, N.J. (CBSNewYork) -- Essex County residents are questioning the need to expand the Turtle Back Zoo, instead of saving taxpayer money.

Tuesday was a beautiful day for visitors to walk around the zoo and meet the cheetahs, hyenas and more, but some of the locals in West Orange say the ever-expanding complex is turning into Disneyland and disrupting their once serene area, not to mention affecting property values.

turtle back zoo
Turtle Back Zoo (Credit: CBS2)

"It used to be a peaceful, quiet neighborhood. Now we're getting all the effects from the recreation complex," resident Robert Rashkes said.

"Citizens of West Orange and surrounding communities cannot get past the Turtle Back Zoo, sometimes they wait 45 minutes or more," Sally Malanga added.

FLASHBACK: Giraffe At New Jersey's Turtle Back Zoo Dies During Medical Procedure

Malanga started an online petition to stop the county-run zoo from taking down more trees in the South Mountain Reservation. There is a plan to add an amphitheater, using millions of taxpayer dollars.

Mike Kerr, the zoo's director, said a theater would help expand conservation education.

"Right now, we can get 2,200 students a day and we can only provide direct programming for about 150 of those kids, whereas the amphitheater's gonna seat about 500," Kerr said.

How much preserved land will it take?

"It'll probably be about an acre or so right now, it's not quite firm, we're still in the design process," Kerr said.

A new parking garage just took an acre of trees.

"Right now we're at a crossroads because this has been the preserve since the 1890s and now if they take away an acre here, an acre there, you're not going to have the reservation," Rashkes said.

The Turtle Back Zoo was once a failing asset that Democratic Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo pumped money into and saved.

"We're self-sustaining so it doesn't put any kind of burden on the public as it is," Kerr said.

A spokesman for the county said a traffic study is currently underway, before a final decision is reached.

Some Millburn residents are calling for a resolution to stop development of the South Mountain Reservation. They say the over-development has caused major flooding issues.

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