Toms River, NJ. After A 13 Year Battle, Another Wal-Mart Slithers Away
On December 3, 2006, Sprawl-Busters reported that a developer wanted to build a 228,000-s.f. Wal-Mart supercenter in Toms River, New Jersey. But the northern pine snake that hibernates on the 43-acre site held up the supercenter. The project got a green light from local planning boards, but in June of 2006, 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," the Toms River Mayor said at the time, "that one snake is holding up the development of this retail center…I'm just so frustrated with the position of the DEP on this."
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.
Fast forward to 2014, and there was still is no construction going on at this site. The Star-Ledger newspaper reported that the developer had to go back to the towns for further zoning approvals, but it looked like Wal-Mart was no longer just fighting snakes--but its own scale as well.
A state court ruled that the developer, Jaylin Holdings, must return to the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection to determine how much of the 43 acres can be covered by the building and a parking lot. The court also overturned Manchester's approval of the project because the property is not zoned for a superstore, and requires a local variance.
However, the court rankled environmentalists by ruling that the project does not pose a danger to the pine snake. The New Jersey Conservation Foundation, the New Jersey Sierra Club, the American Littoral Society and Save Barnegat Bay all complained about the court ruling. "It's a dangerous precedent for the future of threatened and endangered species in New Jersey," the Ledger quoted the Conservation Foundation as saying.
As usual, Wal-Mart just issued a terse statement reiterating its desire "to serve customers and the community in Tom's River."
In 2012, the state DEP gave a green light to the developer's proposal to move the pine snakes off the Wal-Mart site and create another habitat for the reptile as "mitigation." Environmentalists challenged the DEP decision as having no science behind it, and noting that DEP was under pressure from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who wanted the project approved in this district that strongly supported him at the polls. Governor Christie understands that snakes don't vote, and developers have money.
At one point, the courts ruled that Manchester's zoning ordinance did not specifically allow super centers. Ronald Gasiorowski, attorney for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, said the developer had to go back to the Manchester zoning board for a variance or the township would have to pass a new ordinance allowing that zone. "Basically they would have to start all over again," Gasiorowski told the Star-Ledger. "This property can be utilized (but) for something else that is simply much smaller."
After 13 years of pushing its weight around, Wal-Mart this week killed its own project. The retailer suddenly announced that “several business factors” led to the “difficult decision” to pull the plug on its superstore—one of several cancellations Wal-Mart has announced in the last month.
“Although we no longer plan to build a new store in Toms River, we are committed to continuing our growth and investment in New Jersey,” a company email said.
“I’m disappointed to hear this because we thought it would be something our residents could enjoy,” Toms River Mayor Thomas Kelaher told the Asbury Park Press. “It would certainly be a good ratable because they are a good neighbor.”
The Mayor obviously hasn’t kept up with Wal-Mart’s crime statistics across the nation.
What you can do: The Toms River Wal-Mart was opposed by the family that owns the Shop Rite grocery chain, the Perlmutter family, who helped fight the project in the courts. Opponent’s lawyer Ronald S. Gasiorowski told the Asbury Park Press:“Obviously, our position all along was that the property was seriously challenged with environmental concerns.”
The Asbury Park Press noted that “Wal-Mart’s decision comes as the company contends with intense competition from other retailers and online stores.” Many of the other stories about recent Wal-Mart cancellations has focused on Wal-Mart’s expensive pivot to online shopping, and their costly acquisition of Jet.com, a New Jersey based company, to challenge its main internet nemesis, Amazon.
"The company is focused on investing in new ways to serve customers, both in the store and on the web, by improving existing stores and enhancing employee training." The Asbury newspaper wrote.
Wal-Mart already has an existing store in Toms River, which it remodeled last fall, including a pick up which allows customers to buy something online at Walmart.com and ship it to the store for free.
Meanwhile, opponents of the proposed Toms River store were thrilled with the Wal-Mart failure. “We felt that it was too big for that site. It was environmentally sensitive and it wasn’t needed,” said a spokesman for the New Jersey Sierra Club.
United Food and Commercial Worker spokesman Jerry Chudoff told Sprawl-Busters that his UFCW Local 152 was deeply involved in the stop Wal-Mart effort, and that the citizens had one of the best land use attorneys in New Jersey, Ron Gasiorowski. “Economic impact was the most poignant bullet point the members heard,” Chudoff said. “New Jersey is still a strong union state keeping unionized supermarkets.”