On May 11, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that a coalition of labor, neighbors, and environmental groups had won an important victory over Wal-Mart and sprawl development in New Jersey. That victory was validated this week when a Wal-Mart developer sent the town of Pennsville, New Jersey a one sentence letter which read: “Please be advised that the applicant is hereby withdrawing the above referenced application.” On January 25, 2006, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart Realty had chosen a site to construct a 220,000 s.f. superstore abutting the 2,800 acre Supawna Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. This turned out to be not only an environmental blunder, but a public relations disaster for the retailer. The company is spending millions to look ‘green’ to the public. Part of Supawna Refuge is designated by the Department of Environmental Protection’s Endangered and Non-Game Species Program as a bald eagle and raptor foraging area. The Planning Board in Pennsville had no qualms about allowing Wal-Mart into the Refuge, but that’s when the retailer ran into a legal swamp. A group called COPAS, the Citizens of Pennsville Against Sprawl, fought the project on environmental and traffic issues, among others. Residents said one Wal-Mart in Pennsville, was one more than enough. The existing discount store in the township is 1/4 mile away, and would have been shut down if the supercenter were ever built. Wal-Mart wanted to build on the Sinnickson farm, 77 acres of land that includes a salt marsh, meadows, and open fields. The superstore footprint alone was 4.6 football fields in size, plus a 1,400 car parking lot. The property lies along the headwaters of the Mill Creek, which is one of the most sensitive bird habitats in New Jersey. Mill Creek feeds into the Delaware River, which hosts at least 7 endangered species. In a remarkable piece of rationalization, Wal-Mart suggested that creating 22 acres of impervious surface, and a major increase in stormwater runoff, was actually good for the wildlife refuge. A Wal-Mart spokesman said the supercenter would protect the watershed by filtering out pesticides and fertilizer residue in the soil from draining into the watershed. This is the same retailer who has been fined by the Environmental Protection Agency for its shoddy construction practices, which led to the siltation of nearby streams in several states. COPAS and the Stop Wal-Mart NJ coalition pressured the township’s planning board to adopt an ordinance that would bar “big box” stores. “It’s become a huge issue here,” Mayor Tom Strong told the Philadelphia Inquirer. After more than two years of controversy, The American Littoral Society announced in May that efforts to keep Wal-Mart out of the Supawna Meadows National Wildlife Refuge had succeeded. The Society announced that a coalition of New Jersey conservation organizations are working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to secure federal funding to purchase the tract as an addition to the Refuge. After a protracted and contentious application process, Wal-Mart’s developer, Angeloni Development LLC, let its option to purchase the property, known as the Sinnickson Tract, expire when the project hit additional roadblocks. These included a suit brought by two residents of the town, which challenged the 2006 site plan approval by the Pennsville Planning Board, and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s refusal to allow sewer extension to the site. The fiercely contested 280,000-square-foot Supercenter would have been located on the intersection of Route 49 and Lighthouse Road, which, according to the Wildlife Refuge Manager, “has remained a conservation priority of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for years… The opportunity to add this site to the Refuge would be an incredible asset to the entire Refuge because of its location, habitat value and opportunities for restoration.” When the developer ended its option to buy the tract, Wal-Mart lost its control over the project. This week, the official white flag went up. Lawyers for Angeloni Development sent its official withdrawal in a letter to the Pennsville Planning Board, according to the Sunbeam newspaper. “This is a big victory for us,” said Matt Blake, of the American Littoral Society. “It was the worst display of development in the wrong place.” A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said she “is not sure what’s going on with the property.” The developer claims that it had let its option to purchase the land expire months ago, and now environmentalists are at work in earnest to buiy the tract of land that would have held a Wal-Mart, and instead add it to 3,100 acre wildlife refuge. “The opportunity to add this site to the refuge would be an incredible asset to the entire refuge because of its location, habitat value and opportunities for restoration,” the Refuge Manager told The Sunbeam. “(This victory) speaks volumes to the effectiveness of a community’s efforts in coming together to give a voice to and fight for the protection of an ecosystem that is integral to Salem County,” said a spokesperson for the Salem County Watershed Taskforce. “The land will have a chance to go on in perpetuity doing what it was designed to do support an ecosystem that so much of our wildlife depends on.” The land that Wal-Mart wanted protects the headwaters of Mill Creek, a tidal estuary that serves as a critical feeding area for nearly 6,000 pairs of wading birds. It is the largest such rookery on the Atlantic Flyway north of Florida.
Large rookeries, not large boxes! The American Littoral Society, Citizens of Pennsville Against Sprawl, New Jersey Environmental Federation, New Jersey Audubon, New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Salem County Watershed Task Force, and Friends of Supawna Meadows National Wildlife Refuge strongly opposed this project because the site serves as the scenic gateway to the Refuge. A spokesman for the Littoral Society said, “The proposed project was completely out of scale and character with the surrounding area. Furthermore, there is an existing Wal-Mart just 1/4 mile away on the outskirts of downtown Pennsville.” The American Littoral Society became involved in opposing the proposed Supercenter more than two years ago when it discovered that the Office of Smart Growth had mapped the site to support metropolitan growth, which, the Society said, “was totally inappropriate for lands adjacent to a refuge into which Americans have already invested millions of dollars of taxpayer money.” The New Jersey Office of Smart Growth has since proposed to re-designate the site as Environmentally Sensitive. U.S. Congressman Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey said he was working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “to secure whatever federal funding is available to preserve this unique property. Acquiring this land would not only increase the attraction of the Supawna Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, but would reinforce my long-standing argument that full-time personnel and services should be reinstated.” The Sinnickson Tract is considered essential to the health of the marshes that feed thousands of wading birds, waterfowl and shorebirds that depend on the Supawna Meadows National Wildlife Refuge for habitat. A spokesperson for the NJ Environmental Federation, said, “Generations to come will enjoy the beauty of this area, thanks to the efforts of local residents, environmental and labor groups who fought the sprawling Super Wal-Mart proposal that was totally inappropriate for this environmentally sensitive land.” The Executive Director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation said, “It took a coalition of groups and citizens to save this critical tract from development into a Supercenter.” The Concerned Pilesgrove Residents added, “Building the Supercenter would not have been a positive ratable for Pennsville, not when you look at all the other small businesses that would have been lost. However, adding this important site to the Refuge will have a positive economic impact on the town by drawing new visitors.” This Pennsville confrontation is emblematic of the development impacts of Wal-Mart at the local level. The retailer creates programs like “Acres for America” and “green” business practices as part of its media machine — but at the grassroots level, the company continues to feed its voracious appetite for stores with thousands of acres of environmentally-sensitive sites every year. This Wildlife Refuge is one that was stopped. Readers are urged to contact Congressman Frank LoBiondo’s office at (202) 225-6572 with this message: “Congressman Lo Biondo, I urge you to continue your efforts to provide the federal funding needed to add the former Wal-Mart site in Pennsville to the Supawna Wildlife Refuge. Better yet, why not use your office to ask Wal-Mart to purchase the property and give it to the American people as an environmental gift to make up for the thousands of similar acres they have ruined across New Jersey and America by building sprawling stores that were not needed? We need more rookeries, not more superstores!”