A coalition of labor, neighbors, and environmental groups has won an important victory over Wal-Mart and sprawl development. 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, is 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 was ever built. Wal-Mart wanted to build on the Sinnickson farm, 79 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 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 this past week that efforts to keep Wal-Mart out of the Supawna Meadows National Wildlife Refuge have 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, on a 77-acre tract 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.
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 the proposed use 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 tract in question also protects the headwaters of Mill Creek, a tidal estuary that serves as a critical feeding area for nearly 6,000 pairs of wading birds, representing nine different species that nest on nearby Pea Patch Island. It is the largest such rookery on the Atlantic Flyway north of Florida. 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 Walmart 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.