To understand the absurdity of the new Wal-Mart supercenter opening on Route 27 in Edison, New Jersey, you simply have to drive around this community. The New Brunswick Home News Tribune story about the new Wal-Mart began with this surreal statement: “Residents can soon access a Wal-Mart store without leaving town.” But there are no less than 8 existing Wal-Mart stores within 11 miles of Edison — including the one in Piscataway just 3 miles from the new site. Wal-Mart’s new store is slated to open November 12th. For many residents of Edison, the ribbon-cutting ceremony will likely remind them of the bitter battle that preceded this event. On April 28, 2007, Sprawl-Busters presented the story of Jun Choi, the Mayor of Edison, who did not approve, and did not want, a Wal-Mart supercenter in his township. In fact, Mayor Choi tried to deny Wal-Mart its building permit. But agreements approved by township officials before he took office tied his hands. Choi charged that the township violated its legal obligation when it granted Wal-Mart a building permit. But the developer sued the Mayor, saying that he unlawfully interfered with the process and should be held personally responsible for the developer’s monetary losses. When the developer’s lawsuit was filed, Choi called it “intimidation and scare tactics,” and reiterated his charge that the township Planning Board failed to comply with proper procedure in executing the developer’s agreement. “The legal basis for us not issuing the building permit is they did not properly execute the developer’s agreement back in 2005,” the Mayor told the Home News Tribune. He said the Planning Board needed approval from the Township Council to execute the document — which it never received. According to the township’s municipal codebook, a developer’s agreement must be executed and delivered to the Township Council before on-site construction may begin. The township and the developer, Edison Route 27, entered into a developer’s agreement in December 2005. The Planning Board had granted site-plan approval a year earlier, in December 2004 for a 141,029 s.f. Wal-Mart. When he ran for office in 2005, Choi said that he opposed the Wal-Mart, blaming the incumbent Mayor at the time, George Spadoro, and the Planning Board for surreptitiously pushing the application through. “This was snuck through in the middle of the night,” Choi said during a debate in the summer of 2005. “George Spadoro’s appointments to the Planning Board did not do their jobs properly.” But the developer said that Choi was attempting “to frustrate and thwart the project” and engaging in a “wrongful misuse of his powers.” The developer calculated that the delays were costing them $2,970 per day, or just over a million dollars a year. The developer in its lawsuit asked the court to hold the Mayor personally responsible for those costs, and sought damages and attorney fees from Choi. In June of 2007, Judge James P. Hurley of the Superior Court of New Jersey in Middlesex County ruled against the Mayor, and ordered the city to give Wal-Mart a building permit within 20 days. “The township will comply with the judge’s order,” Mayor Jun Choi reluctantly told the newspaper. “But we continue to oppose this project.” Edison Route 27 Associates paid the township $1 million for traffic improvements, and paid $96,000 to the township’s tree-replacement fund, a fund that generates money from developers that don’t replace trees on their sites. This week, the Home News Tribune reports that opponents are still uncomfortable with how this store was approved. Anthony Russomanno, who organized a rally against the store three years ago, told the newspaper, “It’s not so much the Wal-Mart store that I opposed, but the way it was done politically under the cover of night.” The newspaper says local residents were “surprised” in November of 2004 when the Wal-Mart project was approved the first night it was presented to the Planning Board. Opponents charged that the new store, nearly the size of three football fields, would create traffic tie-ups in an already problematic area. But many residents felt the review process was a “backdoor political deal,” according to the paper. Mayor Jun Choi did not respond the Home News Tribune inquiry about the pending store opening.
In 2007, Mayor Choi got the Sprawl-Busters Municipal Courage Award for coming out squarely against this Wal-Mart project. The Mayor understood that Wal-Mart brings no added value to his community, and even after the court ruling, the Mayor continued to oppose the project — despite the financial threats made against him by the developer. The 36 year old Mayor has held positions at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, working on improving the Social Security system, and worked as a management consultant for Ernst & Young, advising Fortune 500 companies on business and technology strategy. Choi says his feeling is that “too many citizens don’t feel that they can make a difference and improve our collective future.” Readers are urged to email Mayor Choi of Edison at: [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mayor Choi, After four long years of watching the political maneuvering behind the Wal-Mart store on Route 27, its now time for Edison residents to tell the giant retailer: ‘When you build it, we won’t come.’ I hope you will refrain from going to the ribbon-cutting, to send a message that this store was not approved in an above-board manner, and it will add no value to your efforts to improve the Edison economy. I congratulate you for standing up to this company and its developer, and I encourage you to tell your constituents that the Mayor will not be shopping there. Edison is saturated with nearby Wal-Marts, and these huge suburban sprawl stores have no place in an urban New Jersey setting. Encourage your constituents to shop locally whenever they can.”