Even at the height of summer, Michael Facchiano often has Crystal Lake all to himself. It’s the best spot in West Orange to observe nature, he said, and oddly the most hidden.
“A lot of people in town don’t even know this place exists,” said Facchiano, a hobby fisherman who reels in bass, catfish, and bluegills. “You wouldn’t believe the different types of wildlife you can see.”
Facchiano, like many residents, was concerned to learn of the gargantuan Public Storage facility that is proposed along the eastern shore of this historic lake near the edge of an old quarry. The original blueprint, which was presented to the zoning board last month, entails downing 38 trees and cutting into a slope at an angle forbidden by the township ordinance. The project is also being criticized for reserving only two parking spots for lake visitors.
Jarrod Yates, Vice President of Public Storage, initially refused to accommodate the zoning board’s request to make the three-story, 41,000-square-foot building smaller, before asking for an adjournment until mid-December. For reference, the existing structure that once housed a bowling alley is about 25,000 square feet.
The proposal comes on the heels of a report in The Star-Ledger that questioned whether Seton Hall Prep’s mountaintop athletic facility, which required hacking down an old-growth forest, caused a September rock slide at the nearby Ron-Jolyn Apartments. Mayor Rob Parisi is petitioning the state for a town-wide geotechnical survey while council members pursue ways to regulate mountainside construction, including a moratorium and amendments to the steep-slope ordinance.
“Our ordinance reads right now that we can build into the grading of the slope,” McCartney said. “But it does not address the cliff and any setback at the top of the cliff.”
The safest bet, to many, is to limit construction on top of the quarry, or even better, preserve the land for outdoor recreation as it was many moons ago.
Joe Fagan, the town historian, once said Crystal Lake might be “the most forgotten chapter in West Orange history.” In the 1890s, Crystal Lake became a sought-after resort that offered year-round entertainment for nearly seven decades. In the winter, skating championships and hockey matches took place. In the summer, overdressed Victorians feasted at the hotel restaurant and were entertained by “moving pictures” and circus acts like tight-rope walkers. The carnival atmosphere got owner John English in hot water when he was accused of selling liquor on Sunday — against the law in 1914. The accuser, an official from the Anti-Saloon League, later withdrew his complaint.
Crystal Lake grew into a full-fledged amusement park under the watch of Hugh Mitchell. The 1960s, however, saw its eventual decline. The shuttered resort became a ghost town and the lake a glorified swamp until a developer revitalized the area as part of a redevelopment agreement in the early aughts.
Lately, visitors can catch a glimpse of Crystal Lake’s heyday. Live music can sometimes be heard on the western end of the water at the OSPAC amphitheater. A long-standing township tradition, the Fishing Derby, was recently moved to the lake, ensuring it is stocked with a variety of aquatic species. But Bill Kehoe, the Director of the Recreation Department, agrees that even more could be done to attract tourists there.
“It’s kind of rustic there — it gives you the feeling that you’re out fishing somewhere in the deep woods,” said Kehoe. “There’s still a lot of untapped potential there.”