Here’s how big box deals are made in New Jersey. On December 3, 2006, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart was having snake problems in Toms River, New Jersey. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) refused to grant Wal-Mart a Coastal Area Facility Review Act permit because of an endangered reptile on the property. This snake’s bite nearly killed Wal-Mart — but not quite. The retailer’s plans to build a 228,000-s.f. supercenter in Toms River along Route 37 West is still alive. The northern pine snake that hibernates on the 43-acre site has held up the supercenter for months, but Wal-Mart is trying to move the snake rather than move their store. The New Jersey DEP admitted yesterday that it has been meeting with Wal-Mart — at the retailer’s request — to try to dance around the snake. Wal-Mart pleaded for an “alternate dispute resolution,” and DEP gave it to them. “Often when an application is denied,” a DEP spokesman said, “they will request this type of negotiation to see if there is any flexibility at all, so this is routine.” In other words, DEP is now giving Wal-Mart a chance to beat the snake. Believe it or not, these negotiations between the state and Wal-Mart are confidential. The Mayor of neighboring Manchester, New Jersey, told the Asbury Park Press, “I heard the negotiations were going on and they were very promising. We have set aside a piece of property behind the site where the snake can be moved. This property will allow for them to track the movement of the snake through the area. We are proposing that property for mitigation.” Not to be outdone, the Mayor of Toms River told The Press that Wal-Mart has come up with an “environmentally friendly store,” whatever that might mean. The Mayor said he heard that if Wal-Mart offered to build a store with solar panels and better landscaping, the DEP would allow them to move the snake. Perhaps this is why these talks are private, because the deal-making is embarrassingly stupid. Both Mayors have made it clear to the DEP that they value the property tax gains they think Wal-Mart will produce more than they value the pine snake.
The local chapter of the Sierra Club thinks this snake deal is slimey. They accused Wal-Mart of “green washing,” which means “trying to put a green friendly face on top of something that is not really green.” They said a vast concrete and asphalt project would “pave over sections that are normally going to have runoff into the streams of our county.” How many solar panels is a pine snake worth? Wal-Mart has moved human bones, tortoises, and snakes to build its stores. Its clear that when push comes to shove, snakes are easier to move than Wal-Mart. It’s hard to determine who is the biggest snake in this deal: Wal-Mart for pressuring the state to move an endangered species; the state DEP for meeting behind closed doors and making sneaky deals; or the two mayors who are willing to sell out the environment for a so-called expanded tax base. The outcome here is certain: Wal-Mart will snake-charm the DEP, and the superstore will slither in. Want to give the Mayor your reaction to this snake-in-the-grass deal? Call the Mayor’s office at 732-341-1000, then add extension 8257. Leave this message for the Toms River Mayor: “I’d rather have a pine snake in my living room than a Wal-Mart in my community. Save the snakes — move Wal-Mart!”