A tract of twenty-two acres of forest named after the former Governor of New Jersey, George Brinton McClellan, was purchased a few years ago by Seton Hall Prep School of West Orange, New Jersey. The school’s plan’s to clear the old growth forest rippled through the community and neighboring towns and has caused many concerns. For two years, town residents and students attended zoning board hearings to voice their opinion on the proposed clear cutting.
Seton Hall Prep plans on clear-cutting the historical forest to make way for additional recreational fields. The private school for boys currently has 20 acres of recreational areas including football fields, a lacrosse field, a parking lot, a ¼ - mile track, a storage facility, property fencing, asphalt, and a shot put ring. They plan on expanding their fields into the forest area with:
- A larger additional storage facility
- 2 baseball diamonds
-1 field house
- 6 tennis courts
- Additional parking for up to 700 cars
- 1 cross country running trail
- Batting cages
- A hot dog concession stand
- 40 foot high bleachers
- 50 foot netting supported by poles in the fly zones of eagles
- 2 detention ditches which are currently home to 50 foot mature trees that have been successfully holding storm water
George B. McClellan, the man whom the forest is named after, was NJ’s 24th Governor and ran for president against Abraham Lincoln in 1864. The McClellan old growth forest is located along Prospect Ave between Mt. Pleasant Ave and Northfield Ave in West Orange. It is a site that many community members visit for walks, jogs, and to walk their dogs. The forest is named “old growth” because it has reached climax succession and some trees on the site that are well over 300 years old. Old growth forests are very rare and are becoming obsolete in New Jersey. The site has impressive diversity with a total of 33 different species of trees which provide habitat for many different species such as the Great Horned Owl, Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, and Red Fox as well as endangered species such as the Indiana Brown Bat. The forest not only provides habitat for animals and a place of spirituality for townspeople, but also is useful in retaining water since the forest is a wetland area.
Zoning board members would not allow anyone to express their opinion at the hearings unless they were residents of West Orange. As the news swirled about the school cutting habitat that an endangered species lived in, students from Bergen Community College’s Environmental Club began attending every board hearing for over a year. They held up signs, made posters and screened shirts, and one student, Nirva Singh, eventually received permission by the board members to give a speech on behalf of the students even though he wasn't a resident of West Orange.
|Bergen Community College Students with Sally Mallanga|
The residents living alongside the forest have been to the town zoning board hearings and have given proof and testimonies of the flooding that has been happening in and around their homes causing property damage. A woman named Mary testified that she fears her property value will “decrease because of the flooding that has been happening.” Clear cutting these trees will cause fast and damaging floods, said several residents who live on Prospect Ave. Seton Hall Prep understands that this will cause major flooding so it has proposed to replace the trees with large detention ditches. Neighbors have been experiencing water damage since 1999, when Seton Hall Prep promised to improve their water control, said a resident.
|Residents of West Orange|
One of the most memorable testimonies was from a resident who lived nearby the field that the students from Seton Hall prep currently use, a site that is only a 5-minute drive away from the old growth forest. The resident came into the room with a large zip-lock bag full of baseballs that have been flying onto his property from the practices and games. On one occasion, the baseball broke a window of theirs, and he is now afraid to let his 8-year-old daughter play in their yard.
Lawyer Kevin Mallanga and wife, Sally Mallanga, who took Seton Hall Prep to court for planning on taking away a vital ecosystem and brought Environmental Expert, Amy Greene, to show up to a couple of meetings. I attended most of these board hearings and heard Amy Greene’s testimony. She revealed that SHP failed in 13 ways in their application and excluded the identification of wetlands and the possibility of endangered species. When Amy Greene told this to the zoning board, they rudely questioned her about the time and day she entered the site and accused her of trespassing instead of addressing the legal issues she was there to inform them about.
|Amy Green during her Testimony|
Seton Hall Prep has been illegally clear cutting and developing without permits or plans such as cutting down a 300-year old White Oak tree in 2006 and in that same year dumping contaminated dump fill onto the forest ground, said several residents who have been observing SHP’s actions. In both cases the judge refused to fine SHP.
The Mallangas, both active members of the Sierra Club, also brought in Bruce Kershner. Kershner is a field ecologist who is also a national authority on old growth forests and took a survey of the 22 acres of trees. He identified the trees and expressed the historical and biological value of the forest. Board members attacked his testimony claiming that the use of the term “old growth forest” can not be used if he cannot tell the exact age of the trees. They repeatedly interrupted him during his testimony to ask him for credentials and if he had a background in studying and observing old growth forests. Kershner has studied old growth forests for over 30 years all over the country, but that did not seem like a sufficient enough background for the zoning board members.
Meetings went by and after hearing dozens and dozens of testimonies from townspeople, most of which seemed to be against the proposal, the zoning board members finally decided on a day to make a decision on whether to accept or deny Seton Hall Prep’s proposal. On decision day, the room was filled and people sat on the floor and in the aisles and there was a crowd of people outside in the hallways and in the stairwell anxiously awaiting their decision. All seven board members voted to approve the proposal. They claimed that they will not be responsible for depriving the students of their baseball and football fields and that athletic facilities aid with the students’ education. After the meeting, townspeople of West Orange gathered outside the town hall and some protested that a forest would be more suitable to educate students than a flat field of grass. The townspeople are not satisfied with this decision and neither are the Mallangas. Kevin Mallanga plans on appealing the case. One resident of the town, who did not want to reveal his identity said, “As long as Seton Hall Prep is tied up in court, they can’t cut down the trees.”
|Students with Save Our Trees T-shirts.|
|Students with Lawyer and Sierra Club Member Kevin Mallanga|
About the Author
Amanda Nesheiwat is a third year Environmental Science Major at Ramapo College of New Jersey. She is active in her community as the Chairman of the Environmental Committee in the town of Secaucus. She is passionate about building a community of strong leaders to educate the youth about environmental issues. She hopes to get her Masters in Environmental Engineering and to get involved with the United Nations where she feels she can make a difference.