Most people would never fight with a snake. But not Wal-Mart. They’ve been fighting snakes in New Jersey for at least four years.
On March 23, 2010, Sprawl-Busters reported that the giant retailer had lost a battle with snakes in Toms River, New Jersey. For four years, Wal-Mart has been battling local residents in Toms River and Manchester, New Jersey, only to get tripped up by a protected snake.
This story began on December 3, 2006, when Sprawl-Busters reported that the northern pine snake had crossed Wal-Mart’s path. The presence of pine snakes delayed Wal-Mart when the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) refused to grant the retailer a Coastal Area Facility Review Act (CAFRA) permit because of this endangered reptile on their property.
Plans for a 228,000-s.f. supercenter in Toms River along Route 37 West were stopped by this reptile. The northern pine snake that hibernates on the 43-acre site held up the Toms River/Manchester supercenter. The project already had a green light from the planning board in Manchester. The state Department of Environmental Protection denied a CAFRA permit because a male northern pine snake was using the site for its home.
The property owners say they have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on environmental studies of the Wal-Mart site, including paying $26,000 to have a veterinarian from Rutgers University implant transmitters in two northern pine snakes found on the property in the fall. One of the snakes left the property and hibernated for the winter in a paint can.
But the second snake, fortunately, hibernated on the Wal-Mart site. State officials say there are many snake dens on the property. The New Jersey DEP told the landowner that no form of mitigation would be allowed, and that the CAFRA permit would be denied. The landowner then appealed the DEP’s decision to the Office of Administrative Law, and gathered 7,000 signatures on petitions from residents who want another Wal-Mart.
There are 8 Wal-Marts within 20 miles of Manchester, including a Wal-Mart discount store also on Route 37 in Toms River less than 8 miles away. Developer Jay Grunin has been battling these snakes for years, and is still at it. Over time, he’s also piled up a long list of human opponents, including Michael Perlmutter, the CEO of the ShopRite grocery chain, and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW).
Over time the developer has reduced the footprint to a 193,000 s.f. superstore, which is a minor adjustment that won’t deter the project’s critics. This store would be located on the border between Manchester and Toms River, so officials in both townships are excited by the presumed property taxes they will share.
Township officials actually approached New Jersey Governor Chris Christie looking for state help in getting an environmental permit for the project. The two towns will share the burden of providing the store with police and fire protection based on an “interlocal” agreement the communities have negotiated. If this superstore opens, the other Wal-Mart on Route 37 in Toms River will close, leaving the community with another ‘ghost box’ to fill. But first Wal-Mart has to outsmart the snakes.
According to the Asbury Park Press, Wal-Mart’s engineers came up with inspiration from their suppliers in the Orient. Wal-Mart has proposed building a 3,700 foot long Great Wall, 4 feet high, to keep the reptiles out of the company’s parking lot. Of the total 43 acres of land involved, 17 are in Tom’s River, and 26 in Manchester. Ironically, the parking lot will have to have two different size parking spaces, because Manchester’s zoning code requires larger parking spaces than Toms River.
In March of 2010, the Press reported that Wal-Mart had suffered another setback. State environmental officials rejected Wal-Mart’s revised site plan because it paved over too much land, and failed to protect the pine snakes. After the first time that a CAFRA permit was denied, Wal-Mart sat down with state officials to offer their “smaller” store, putting more of the building on the Toms River side of the line.
Most of the land in Manchester was supposed to be preserved in its wooded state — just right for snake habitat. But once again, the state gave the huge project a thumbs down. This left Wal-Mart in the middle of planning board hearings before two towns, and no permit from the state.
But the case slithered on, and this week, the media announced that New Jersey’s DEP has come to a “tentative agreement” that would allow the superstore to be built. The agreement stipulates that the development will maintain more than 200 acres of land as a permanent preserve of forest to enhance pine snake habitat that would be adjacent to the property. The developer, Jaylin Holdings will build five hibernacula, or den areas, for the pine snakes, and block them from human access.
“This agreement represents a common sense approach that allows this forested land to remain without any development potential whatsoever, and enhances the local habitat of the northern pine snake while allowing reasonable, conscientiously planned development along a major transportation route to move forward and create economic growth,” said DEP’s Commissioner. “This agreement will result in a net environmental gain by permanently preserving 10 acres for every acre that would be developed.”
But environmnetalists are not pleased. The head of the New Jersey Sierra club said the developer comes out on top, and the snakes lose. “The DEP’s latest agreement with Wal-Mart developer Jaylin Holdings emphasizes the department’s continued rollback in protections and giveaways to developers,” the Sierra Club said. “The proposed Wal-Mart would be located a few yards down Route 37 from an existing Wal-Mart in Toms River Township on habitat for the state threatened Northern Pine Snake. In exchange for destroying the existing pine snake habitat, Jaylin will permanently preserve 212 acres of land whose development potential is already severely limited by Pinelands Commission and endangered species regulations. The agreement also requires that a pine snake den area on the Wal-Mart site be avoided during construction.”
The Sierra Club noted that the pine snakes are already on the run in New Jersey, as their habitats are “fractured” due to new development. “Allowing further development that close to existing dens will simply destroy the snake population. The developer proposes major restoration work to the 212 acre tract for pine snake habitat including clear-cutting for basking areas and nesting. The impacts on other species currently utilizing the landscape from these adjustments have not been studied by the department or the developer. This is a Ponzi scheme that does not work: you can’t build that close and expect the area to remain critical habitat.”
The Sierra Club of New Jersey wants the developer to expand its existing site, rather than sprawl on more land. “This is just a ruse to avoid endangered species regulations and have a Wal-Mart approved. Last year the builders tried to remove the pine snake from the endangered species list,” the Sierra Club concluded. “This year [DEP] did it through this dirty deal.”
Wal-Mart was not pleased that ShopRite was intervening against them. During most site fight battles, Wal-Mart relies on being able to out-spend its opponents. The giant retailer spends a fortune on legal, environmental, traffic, and site engineers, while citizen’s groups hold bake sales to raise money to fend off the project. In this Toms River/Manchester battle, Wal-Mart is facing off against another retailer and the grocery worker’s union.
Wal-Mart’s lawyer tried to get Michael Perlmutter removed as an objector. “Mr. Perlmutter is a classic example — that will be direct and open competition,” Wal-Mart’s lawyer told The Asbury Park Press. “The mere threat that they will have increased business competition” does not give Perlmutter standing to object before the township Planning Board, Wal-Mart’s lawyer said.
But in 2005, when the first, larger Wal-Mart plan was heard, the townships gave Perlmutter standing to make his case. In the end, the Manchester Planning Board ruled that Perlmutter could stay on the case. But the real star of the show has been the pine snake.
If a Wal-Mart superstore ever is permitted, the ‘old’ Wal-Mart in Tom’s River is history. And then there’s that nasty problem with the snakes. Maybe Wal-Mart could enclose the snake den in glass in the middle of the deli section, and turn the shopping experience into an environmental lesson on the importance of preserving natural habitat.
There is still a role for advocates to play. The DEP is now taking public comments on the “tentative” plan, and has indicated it will review those comments before any decision are made. A notice of the proposed settlement will be published in the new issue of the DEP Bulletin at http://www.nj.gov/dep/bulletin/index.html. Readers are urged to mail comments to: Ocean County Section Chief, Division of Land Use Regulation, NJDEP, P.O. Box 420 501-02A, Trenton, NJ 08625.
Just print out this story and mail it to the DEP. Tell them that the best environmental solution is to leave the snakes alone, and tell Wal-Mart to go back to its den in Toms River and retrofit its existing store however they like.”