Efforts to preserve the Hilltop as open space began in earnest in the early 1980’s. By that time, Essex County had wound down its use of the Essex Mountain Sanatorium for tuberculosis treatment (an antibiotic discovered during WWII had made patient sequestration unnecessary), and subsequent attempts to re-use the sanatorium buildings as an extension of the Essex County Hospital (e.g., Turning Point program for drug addiction) and nearby fallow fields as a composting site for leaf collection, were not feasible long-term. At that time the County began considering development proposals for the 335-acre property, which had significant real estate value as the highest point in Essex County with a clear view of the New York City skyline.
A group of concerned local citizens formed the Save the Mountains Committee in 1980, and spent the next two decades fighting a series of development proposals (e.g., a hotel & conference center, a golf course, an extended-care nursing home, condominiums) and gathering public support for turning the Hilltop into a park. Their efforts included:
- Sponsoring a Verona town council referendum
- Commissioning ecological impact studies
- Writing / calling / making in-person visits to municipal and state representatives
- Hosting community gatherings and nature walks
- Attending and speaking out at public hearings
- Authoring local newspaper columns and letters to the editor
- Supporting a 12,000+ signature petition to then-New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman
It was a long, but eventually successful, campaign. In 2001 and 2002, Essex County obtained Green Acres funding to purchase and set aside 240 acres of the Hilltop as passive-use parkland, and sold the remaining 95 acres to developers for housing in Verona, Caldwell and North Caldwell. On May 30, 2002, the Hilltop Reservation was officially dedicated and opened to the public. More acreage was added in 2003 after development plans for nearby land were finalized, bringing the Hilltop Reservation to a total of 284 acres (see trails map).
Today, the Hilltop Reservation is a nature preserve permanently dedicated to passive-use recreation and conservation purposes.