Tomorrow night the Planning Board in Lawrence, New Jersey will hold a hearing about what the local newspaper describes as a “controversial application” to build a Wal-Mart superstore on Spruce St., where two car dealerships used to be. A group called LET’s (Lawrence/Ewing/Trenton) Stop Wal-Mart will be holding an informational picket line and rally, before the hearing. The Wal-Mart proposal is to build a 143,233 s.f. store on a 23.5-acre lot. The used-car dealerships would be razed to make way for the store. This latest proposal is the third version submitted by Wal-Mart since 2004, according to the Lawrence Ledger newspaper. The Lawrence Planning Board sent the earlier plans back for further changes. Wal-Mart needs a stream buffer variance, because part of the proposed driveway, parking lot and loading area are within the 100-foot buffer zone for a stream. The site has the Shabakunk Creek bordering the property. Residents have been fighting this proposal since it first came to light in 2004. “Wal-Mart was wrong for the area for three years and it is still wrong,” one Lawrence resident told the Ledger. “(The site) is an environmentally sensitive area. The people who live in Tiffany Woods (an adjacent residential development) won’t be able to get out because of the traffic.” The group LET’s Stop Wal-Mart’s has petitioned the Township Council to adopt a living-wage ordinance in an effort to force Wal-Mart to raise its employees’ salaries and provide them with better fringe benefits. A second group, the Lawrence Living Wage Coalition, gathered more than 1,000 signatures last year on a petition to require Township Council to act on a proposed living-wage ordinance. But the town’s lawyer sought a judicial ruling in state Superior Court on the legality of a township passing its own minimum wage. Last August, Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg ruled in that a municipality cannot set its own minimum wage.
LET’s Stop Wal-Mart should focus its efforts on the traffic, environmental, and site-related issues of this fight. The Shabakunk Creek may be more important an issue here than Wal-Mart’s lousy wages. The location clearly has some environmental limitations, and the buildable area on this site should be reduced as much as possible to shrink the size of any proposed development. To do this properly, they need the testimony of a wetlands scientist about the buffer zone, not just the statement of local residents. A traffic engineer also might be helpful, but traffic issues often end up in a battle of engineers, with town officials using traffic to kill a project — only if they want to kill it in the first place. Town Councils will not respond to issues about decent wages or health benefits. They are there to approve a zoning plan, and they only speak the language of zoning. The citizen group in Lawrence has successfully kept up the pressure on local officials to hold Wal-Mart’s feet to the fire, and dragged out this process for almost three years. But the final outcome will be based on zoning related matters, not on Wal-Mart’s pathetic record as an employer. That battle must be fought in other venues, like the New Jersey legislature.