Many residents in Dover Township, in Ocean County, New Jersey may think of Wal-Mart as a “snake in the grass” to be avoided at all costs, but it looks like a real snake could end up biting Wal-Mart instead. According to the Asbury Park Press, a northern pine snake could have slithered into Wal-Mart’s plans to build a supercenter nearly five times the size of a football field. The northern pine snake is an endangered species in New Jersey, and apparently has hibernated on the 43 acre property Wal-Mart has selected for its supercenter. Wal-Mart will not own the land, only lease it from a real estate company. The huge store crosses the borders of Manchester and Dover, New Jersey, and both towns have already approved the project. But the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) could stymie the plans by not granting the Coastal Area Facility Review Act permit (CAFRA) that Wal-Mart needs to proceed. The Mayors of both communities are now trying to convince the DEP to allow the supercenter to go forward, because they apparently think the project is going to “create” jobs and tax revenues — even though they have no study that shows the real net impact of this store on existing jobs and businesses. That impact is the real snake in the grass that city officials should worry about, but neither Mayor bothered to learn the truth before approving the project. The Mayor of Manchester told the Asbury Park Press, “They (DEP) have not actually put their denial in writing yet, but we gathered today that that is the way it’s going to go. They are insisting that there is snake habitat and there are snake dens on the site.” Some local residents are thrilled that the Northern Pine snake has been found. “We want that site to remain open space,” one Wal-Mart opponent told the newspaper. “I hope that both mayors realize that ratables are not everything, and that the environment should come first.” The snake dens were first found by state wildlife officials, who uncovered two pine snakes on the property in the fall. The property owner then had “tracking devices” surgically implanted in the reptiles so that their movements could be monitored. One snake left the property in the fall and hibernated for the winter in a paint can in another area, but the second snake stayed right on the Wal-Mart site, perhaps waiting for the store to open. City officials said they are now in the business of closely following the snake’s activity: “We’re tracking it every day. It’s been past Route 37, back to the property again, over the railroad tracks, back across Route 37, back to the property.” If DEP officials deny the CAFRA permit, the cities and the state would sit down and work out a mitigation plan, which could involve the developer buying more land and relocating the snake to that other site.
The northern pine snake somewhat resembles the retail behavior of a Wal-Mart store. Pine snakes, which can grow to be 5 to 7 feet long, kill their prey by wrapping themselves around it and suffocating it. If the communities in Manchester and Dover spent as much time and money tracking the economic track record of Wal-Marts in New Jersey and elsewhere, they would see that as Wal-Mart wraps its stores in a ring around a community, the smaller competitors suffocate and die from lack of market share. It is a slow, and painful process to watch, but the sales losses are real, and the adverse impacts are as penetrating as a snake bite. Instead of relocating the Northern Pine snake, local officials would do better to try to relocate the Wal-Mart den.