Old Bridge, NJ. Shop Rite Continues Legal War Against Wal-Mart Supercenter
Sprawl-Busters reported on January 15, 2009 that residents in Old Bridge, New Jersey were fighting a 150,000 s.f. Wal-Mart supercenter. More than two years later, that battle is still in the courts, as another grocery store chain continues its efforts to kill the project.
Old Bridge is located 36 miles from downtown Manhattan. The community has just over 66,000 people. It already has a Wal-Mart discount store on Route 9. In fact, there are 14 Wal-Marts within 20 miles of Old Bridge -- none of them superstores. Wal-Mart is working hard in New Jersey to either expand this "nest" of discount stores into supercenters, or shut them down and build new supercenters, leaving the old discount stores empty.
The Old Bridge Planning Board first took testimony on a Wal-Mart supercenter project submitted by developer Greg Matzel. The proposed site is roughly a 7 minute drive from the existing Wal-Mart. One Planning board member was quoted by the Sayreville Suburban newspaper as saying, "I like the project, I just don't want it coming into our neighborhoods." The site Wal-Mart wants is a part of a 500 acre "Crossroads" redevelopment project that is the focal point of development in this township. Currently the Wal-Mart site is a 53 acre golf center, on land not owned by the township.
So far, the project has drawn vocal criticism from local residents, and what the paper described as "union workers from around the state." The Planning Board was clearly concerned about the impact of the increased traffic volume the new store would bring, and complained that the developer should have done an analysis of traffic at the existing Wal-Mart to get a sense of what could happen at the proposed project. The township and this developer have a confrontational history.
In 2006, Matzel sued the township after they rejected his proposal to build 450 residential units. As part of a legal settlement, the township agreed to change the parcel's zoning to commercial, which allows a big box development. So out of this lawsuit, the developer settled for the possibility of a very lucrative sale to Wal-Mart. "I think the one thing [board members and residents] are forgetting is that this is a settlement between us and the township," Matzel said. "There are always going to be a handful of residents who are opposed to the project."
The land in question is also riddled with wetlands, but the developer said he can destroy up to an acre of wetlands under New Jersey law. Local residents have protested the project by speaking out against what they called the "Wal-Monster." One resident who lives near the site told the Suburban, "We have plenty of Wal-Marts. We do not need another." In addition to the Wal-Mart, the project has a retail building of 18,400 s.f. , 15,500 s.f. for two restaurants, and a 29,190 s.f. office building. The plan puts a weight limit on trucks to keep Wal-Mart's tractor trailers out of nearby neighborhoods. One regional manager for Wal-Mart told the Planning Board that the retailer's existing Wal-Mart discount store minutes away would be "temporarily closed." But the Wal-Mart spokesman then added that we was "not sure if the store would be reopened," according to My Central New Jersey.
The Old Bridge Planning Board Chairman questioned Wal-Mart whether another store was really needed. The answer was bizarre: "Wal-Mart sees it as serving two different markets and this is a supercenter." As expected, the Old Bridge Planning Board gave a green light the proposal on May 5, 2009. Opponents held a demonstration against the project. "We don't need another Wal-Mart,'' said one Old Bridge resident "There are three existing Wal-Marts and or Sam's Clubs, which is owned by Wal-Mart, within a 10-minute ride from the proposed site. Wal-Mart is bad for America. It's a greedy, gigantic outfit, and we don't need them here. There is a lot better use for that land. It's also a quality-of-life issue. This is a nice, quiet area in a rural setting, and they are going to build this monstrosity that will be open 24 hours a day... I know Wal-Mart is a big corporation, but they shouldn't push residents around like this."
"There are scores of ugly, empty retail sites in Old Bridge and neighboring towns," another opponent said. "By allowing Wal-Mart to build this new super center, the Planning Board is also approving another huge, empty eye-sore in their town. This does not seem like good planning to me. We do not need another Wal Mart." "Opposition is simple," said Ray Stever, president of the New Jersey State Industrial Union Council. "All Wal-Marts do is tear down union jobs. When Wal-Mart comes into the area, you lose good-paying jobs with benefits to part-time jobs with no benefits. They destroy jobs and destroy communities for the bottom line of greed." "Safety and health come first," said Planning Board member Owen Henry, "and this has a negative impact on the quality of life. There are so many flaws in this plan, and people shouldn't have to be affected by this. The applicant really didn't put their best foot forward."
The Old Bridge Planning Board decision was appealed to the New Jersey courts by ShopRite, a grocery chain that has spoken out against the project. This week, 27 months after the Board's approval, the case is still in the courts. ShopRite has lost the first two legal round of its appeal in the lower courts, but has field an appeal with teh New Jersey state Supreme Court.
According to the Suburban newspaper, the appeal charges that a decision in June of 2011 by the state Superior Court's Appellate Division, which agreed with a trial court's decision to uphold the town's decision, charges that public notice for The Golf Center's site plan application was legally insufficient because it failed to identify the store as Wal-Mart. The lawsuit also charges that the Planning Board approved the project without a hearing open to the public. ShopRite added that the board overstepped its authority to approve the Wal-Mart because the building violates the township redevelopment plan's standard that "no single- user commercial building may exceed 150,000 square feet." The lawsuit said that Wal-Mart needed to file for either a variance from the zoning code, or an amendment to the redevelopment plan -- which would have required a townshhip Council vote. The Appellate Court ruled against ShopRite's claim.
The Court ruled that the proposed garden center would have no roof and thus was not defined as a building under the New Jersey Land Use Law, so it did not count toward the size of the building. According to the Suburban newspaper, ShopRite has a constitutional right to challenge the Planning Board's decision. Wal-Mart cannot sue ShopRite on the basis of preventing construction, though, because it would be considered a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or a "SLAPP suit," which is unconstitutional.
After the court's ruling, Jerry Chudoff, an organizer with the United Food and Commerical Workers in New Jersey, told Sprawl-Busters: "I am deeply saddened that an economic impact report of the negative effects was not reviewed. The offset of higher paying jobs with quality healthcare negotiated by the UFCW will now impact many members. Wal-Mart's reliance on public assistance dollars is a drain on federal, state and local government. Wal-Mart is New Jersey's largest private employer with the most employees using taxpayer funded assistance.(medicare,medicaid,free lunch programs,etc.)"
Chudoff added, "The time has now come that corporate executive compensation must be taxed higher to help pay for our social programs. The downward spiral of the American Dream is being driven by corporate greed. We must realize the light at the end of the tunnel may be a train coming towards us." Chudoff noted that he was "happy to fight Wal-Mart supercenters to protect my brothers and sisters in the UFCW and encourage others to see the light(of that train) and get involved. A project like this would have a mushroom effect and would eventually leave Route 18 in Old Bridge to look like 18 in East Brunswick and I thought that would be terrible."
What you can do: During the township hearings, many residents suggested that if this new store opens up, the 'old' Wal-Mart minutes away will close. Developer Matzel denied that would happen. "Our intent is to keep both sites open," the Wal-Mart PR spokesman said, but then he hedged his bets: "But [we] will continue to review and re-evaluate that option in the future. Grocery is a critical part of the merchandise offering that our customers want and expect at a Wal-Mart. It is an area where we are able to save our customers a lot of money by offering unbeatable prices."
Readers are urged to email Old Bridge Mayor Patrick Gillespie at: Mayor@oldbridge.com with the following message: "Dear Mayor Gillespie, Your community has 14 Wal-Marts within 20 miles. Even someone addicted to Chinese imports does not need 14 Wal-Mart within an easy drive. The site on Route 18 that Wal-Mart wants in Old Bridge is just minutes from its existing store on Route 9. You may be aware that Wal-Mart has been systematically shutting down its discount stores to open up supercenters. Ten years ago in New Jersey, there were 16 discount stores, and no supercenters. Today, there are 45 discount stores, and only 1 supercenter. Outside of Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont, New Jersey has the fewest number of supercenters in the nation. While that's good, it means that Wal-Mart is going to be shutting down discount stores across the state over the next few years, or expanding them when its feasible. Wal-Mart Realty currently has 145 dead stores on the market, for a total of 12 million square feet of empty stores.
These 'dark stores' are not easy to fill. All that a new Wal-Mart will do is increase traffic in Old Bridge, increase crime, and shut down the 'old' store and one or two grocery stores too. This is not a form of economic development. Wal-Mart makes nothing. They just sell Chinese imports that end up in your landfills. I am glad that opponents continue to challenge this decision legally, because your Planning Board made a huge mistake. The least you could do is make sure the neighbors don't have to put up with this project 24 hours a day. Despite what Wal-Mart's lawyer said, you can make that a condition of their permit in Old Bridge. The Council can write up a Developer's Agreement that insists on no 24 hours operations, and requires Wal-Mart to put funds in escrow to pay for the demolition of its 'old' store if it remains unoccupied by any retail use for 12 consecutive months."