Wal-Mart got another rejection slip in Toms River, New Jersey this week. For five years, Wal-Mart has been battling local residents in Toms River and Manchester, New Jersey, only to get tripped up by a protected snake.
Even the reptiles are against Wal-Mart in New Jersey. On December 3, 2006, 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 snakes for 5 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.
This week the Press reports that Wal-Mart has suffered another setback. State environmental officials have rejected Wal-Mart’s revised site plan because it still paves over too much land, and fails 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 leaves Wal-Mart in the middle of planning board hearings before two towns, and no permit from the state. So far, the score is Wal-Mart 0, Snakes 2.
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 has 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.
Readers are urged to email Toms River Mayor Thomas F. Kelaher at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mayor Kelaher, The proposed Wal-Mart supercenter project is going to leave your community with a dead store on Route 37. 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. Please don’t expect to see this 5 year battle over a superstore result in new jobs. After stores like ShopRite lose jobs or close, your net gain in jobs will be next to nothing. More than forty acres, including some sensitive environmental habitat, gets destroyed just to give Wal-Mart more market share. There’s clearly nothing much in this for Toms River. It’s a retail store, not a real economic development project. I urge you to let the Planning Board know that this project makes no environmental or economic sense, and that the only folks who will ‘live better’ from this project are the people from Bentonville. If I had to choose between snakes, I’d take the kind that live in dens in Toms River — not the ones that live in the corporate dens in Bentonville.”