The county will forge ahead with plans to construct a sea lion and touch tank exhibit at Turtle Back Zoo after the West Orange Planning Board gave its approval Wednesday night.
The county presented an application to the township's planning board as a courtesy but are not bound by the board's decision.
During the courtesy review, architects with Clarke Caton Hintz, the firm designing the exhibit, detailed plans for the $3.7 million undertaking set to open in the summer of 2013. The opening will coincide with the zoo's 50th anniversary.
The 10,000 square foot exhibit will welcome up to four sea lions and a medley of sharks and sting rays that guests will be able to feed and touch.
"It's an absolutely incredible exhibit," said Dr. Jeremy Goodman, director at Turtle Back Zoo. Though the species in the touch tank will be docile and safe, "you can have the thrill of feeding a shark," he said.
Goodman said the sea lion exhibit will include feeding and training demonstrations. "Sea lions are an incredible animal, they're always active, they're vocal, they're cold-tolerant animals so they're active year-round and the zoo is open year round. It's going to be an incredible, dynamic exhibit with a lot of movement, sounds and total immersion into sea lion habitat."
Architects George Hibbs and Michael Hanrahan outlined the area plan and answered questions before the planning board.
The exhibit will be centrally located by the main entrance and include a variety of vantage points from which to see the animals, said Hibbs. He added that there will be two viewing windows through which guests will be able to see the sea lions fully submerged.
The exhibit will replace the old red barn that was torn down a couple years ago, said Goodman. A small goose pond and gazebo will also be relocated to make room for the sea lion habitat.
The architects reiterated that the exhibit would be handicap accessible and that extra restrooms would be built to accommodate the additional flow of people.
The plan also includes a heated beach, an open area for residents to host public functions and an area for back of house duties such as feeding, storing fish, additional animal tanks and veterinary functions.
The meeting, though poorly attended by the public, evoked some concern among the planning board regarding safety, parking and traffic.
Residents have cited similar concerns, fearing the exhibit would draw crowds too large for current parking and traffic regulations to handle.
Special legal council for the county, Mark Fleder, said the exhibit will attract no more than 10-20 additional vehicles and usher an additional 150 people a day, spiking daily attendance by 10 percent. He said currently the zoo draws an average of 1,500 people per day.
Hanrahan said the zoo was adequately prepared for additional patrons. He said the zoo has more than 1,200 parking spaces and more than adheres to required parking regulations — one space for every three visitors.
Councilwoman Susan McCartney who voted in favor of the application, said parking would "not be a problem at all" but was concerned about traffic to the area.
McCartney said she's received complaints from residents that vehicles driving west on Northfield Avenue are illegally turning left on Cherry Lane. She said "additional signage" to direct traffic on Northfield Avenue would likely be needed but overall said the project would benefit the community.
"It is aesthetically pleasing, it just seems to be generating so much interest and a positive vibe in the town. It's lending itself to the overall appeal of the zoo," she said.
Fleder said construction would take approximately one year. He estimated the total cost of the project to be $3.7 million but said the actual number might change after construction bids.
The money will be raised through increased zoo fees, membership fees and private fundraising,
Goodman said that while the $3.7 million estimated for the plan does not include the animals, the zoo will likely obtain the animals without cost. "Being an accredited zoo, there's a good chance we can obtain the animals on loan and there very well may not be a purchase cost."
The courtesy application was approved by an 8-0 vote with planning board member Jerome Eben recusing himself for personal ties to the zoo.