For five years, Wal-Mart has been battling local residents in Toms River and Manchester, New Jersey. Not only are they fighting with people in these two Ocean County, New Jersey townships — but they’ve got reptiles against them too. 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 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 Coastal Area Facilities Review Act (CAFRA) permit because a male northern pine snake had spent the winter in a den on the property. “This story is just hard to believe,” said Toms River Mayor Paul Brush, “that one snake is holding up the development of this retail center, that whole Route 37 corridor, and potentially, the Ciba-Geigy site. I’m just so frustrated with the position of the DEP on this.” Toms River officials were concerned that the northern pine snake was also living on the 1,350-acre Ciba-Geigy Corp. superfund site, which officials view as crucial to the township’s economic well-being. The property owners claim to 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 in the fall and hibernated for the winter in a paint can. But the second snake 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. This week, four years later — there still is no Wal-Mart in Manchester. 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). The proposed “smaller” 193,000 s.f. superstore is 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 have come 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. To get to the store, shoppers will have to drive around the pine snake’s den site. Opponents of the project are asking this existential question: If Wal-Mart builds this wall, will it be to keep the snakes out, or to keep the Wal-Mart snakes in? The next Wal-Mart hearing is March 1st, and if the Planning Board ultimately approves the plan, this project is expected to snake its way into a courtroom, not a ribbon-cutting.
Wal-Mart is not pleased that ShopRite is 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 was quoted as saying in 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. The project came before the Planning Board on February 1st. Wal-Mart told town officials that its new store in Lanoka Harbor created 450 new jobs. That’s somewhat exaggerated from his company’s own press release. On October 7, 2009, Wal-Mart said the Lanoka Harbor store “will employ approximately 375 associates, according to store manager George W. Smith Jr.” The fact is, when you factor out the jobs that will be lost at other retailers and grocers in the trade area when a Wal-Mart supercenter opens, the project will be lucky to see any net job growth. Readers are urged to email Mayor Mike Fressola at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mayor Fressola, It must be hard for your constituents to drive all the way over to Toms River to shop at Wal-Mart, but it sure beats having an empty 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 their 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. The Wal-Mart people overstated the new jobs in Lanoka Harbor by 20%, and the net new jobs, after stores like ShopRite close, will be next to nothing. So more than forty acres, including some sensitive environmental habitat, gets destroyed just to give Wal-Mart more market share. There’s clearly nothing in this for Toms River — unless they like the idea of an empty store on their roadway. 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. You won’t have to deal with a 3,700 foot wall either.”