It may be hard to imagine a worse place to build a Walmart Super Store than a currently empty corner of the town of Toms River, New Jersey.
For starters, the idyllic town near the Jersey Shore already has a Walmart. And the site where a second one has been proposed is both in a part of the Pine Barrens—a protected swath of forest in the southern part of the State—and abutting the protected waterways of Barnegat Bay. It is also home to the Northern Pine Snake, which is on the state’s list of endangered species.
“They needed another Walmart like they needed another toxic well,” said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey.
And so in 2006, under Gov. Jon Corzine, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection rejected the proposal to build a Walmart on the site. In 2010, the developers came back with another proposal that was again rejected, this time by the administration of new governor Chris Christie, who had been enthusiastically endorsed by the state’s largest green group, the New Jersey Environmental Federation, in his race against Corzine.
Now, though, the super store stands a better than even chance of getting built in Toms River -- to the seething anger of the state’s environmentalists who believed that they were electing an ally when they backed Christie back in 2009. An official with the state’s Department of Environmental Protection said the Toms River Walmart is an example of business and the state working together to arrive at a solution that protects the environment and encourages economic development. Walmart spokesperson Amanda Henneberg said that the store – which had been through several rounds of community input -- “would be welcomed by many” for its jobs and affordable groceries.
Environmentalists counter that the story of the super store, is emblematic of how business gets done in Chris Christie’s New Jersey, a place where environmental rules get gutted if need to appease the right political powerbrokers and if you hire the right law firm—in this case, Wolff & Samson, a firm that has been the go-to law firm for the Christie administration and that now finds itself in buffeted by its involvement in a series of scandal swirling around the governor.
Days after the Department of Environmental Protection rejected the second application for a Walmart in 2010, saying that it would destroy too much woodland, would take away habitat for the threatened northern pine snake, and would take away too much coastal area, Christie told the editorial board of the Asbury Park Press regarding the rejection, “There may be a way around it.”
"It will get more review, and the DEP commissioner will be meeting with the folks at Walmart to talk about alternatives to their current plan that will make it workable,” he added.
Ocean County, where Toms River is located is one of the most reliably Republican bastions in the state, giving Christie his biggest margin of victory in 2009. The state’s Republican chairman, George Gilmore, is considered one of the most powerful political bosses in a state full of them. Gilmore was an early and enthusiastic backer of Christie, served on his transition committee and is said by Trenton insiders to meet monthly with the governor dating back to his time as U.S. attorney. After Christie won election in 2010, Gilmore was hired as general counsel by the lobbying firm 1868 Public Affairs, which began working on behalf of Walmart during the Christie era. The objective, according to the firm's website: to “enhance image of the world’s largest retailer with NJ Legislature and key Administration decision-makers. Stop anti-big box and healthcare legislation targeted specifically at Walmart.”
(Recently Gilmore has come under fire for pressuring Ocean County municipalities to use a debris removal company which keeps him on its payroll for help with clean-up from Hurricane Sandy; 17 of 33 towns in the county did so.)
Gilmore wasn't along in his support of the super store. According to records with New Jersey’s election law enforcement commission, in June of 2010, a few months after Christie made his comments to the Asbury Park Press about the Toms River project, Walmart hired the law firm of Wolff & Samson to lobby on their behalf. (A spokesperson for the firm said that Wolff & Samson had “no involvement with WalMart in connection with the Toms River site,” but declined to detail what work the firm did for the retail giant.)
That firm’s partner, David Samson, is also a close Christie confidante who served as chairman of the Port Authority, and has been under fire in recent months for his role in the scandal surrounding the closure of the George Washington Bridge. The firm, meanwhile, has benefitted greatly from its close relationship with Governor Christie. As The Huffington Post reported Wolff and Samson have seen its lobbying revenues explode in the Christie years, earning $43,000 from the practice in 2009 to well over $1 million each of the last two years, and serving as counsel to six different state agencies during the Christie administration, including the Economic Development Authority, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, the Schools Development Authority and the South Jersey Transportation Authority. The firm also represented the developer behind the controversial Hoboken project in which the local mayor said she was pressured to accede to Christie administration demands or risk her town losing Sandy relief aid.
According to a compliance officer at the state election law commission, Walmart terminated its relationship with Wolff & Samson at the end of December of 2010. However, the agency was not notified that the relationship ended until this month, over three years later.
Asked if this was unusual, the compliance officer said, “You are supposed to notify us when you do stuff, but that is all we have.”
(A spokesperson for Walmart was unable to verify the state’s records.)
Nor was the connection with Wolff & Samson severed entirely. Walmart retained the lobbying arm of the firm in February of 2011, and continues to do so until the present day.
After Christie’s statement, the DEP and the developer entered settlement negotiations, and in April of 2012, the agency issued a permit to build, creating a plan that would move the snake habitat elsewhere on the site.
Environmentalists were furious, saying that the plan would lead to the mass extinction of the snake population.
“This thing was dead. Next thing you know, Wolff & Samson get involved and it gets approved,” said Jeff Tittel of the Sierra Club. “It was the first time that the state had allowed the direct taking of endangered species for development, moving their dens rather than building around them.”
“You try to find some other habitat for the snakes and they all will die,” Tittel added.
“Doing a 180 degree turn on exactly the same development plan? That is very unusual,” Carlton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Alliance, said. “You rarely see an agency deny a permit on day one and on day two turn around and grant it. This is an extreme case in that regard.”
The environmentalists acknowledge, of course, that elections have consequences, and that as governor Christie has wide latitude to set his agenda. But, they note, this does not mean that he can disregard the approval process for protected lands or for endangered wildlife.
Bill Wolfe, a former DEP official who frequently blogs now about the inner workings of the Christie administration, compared it to a governor deciding that the speed limit did not apply in a certain area where a friend of his got caught.
“These are laws. You can’t just assert politics to compromise science and the regulatory regime,” he said. “I can’t recall anything like this where you have two explicit denials. That is pretty hard to turn around.”
Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the DEP, strongly disputed this characterization or the fact that allies of the governor had any undue influence over the process.
“Just because some environmental group that opposed the project now decided to make a ludicrous charge about ‘influence’ should not raise this to the level of a story,” he wrote in an email. “It demeans the DEP’s efforts to carefully and thoroughly review this project.”
Instead, he said that the multiple rejections were how the process was supposed to work, and that it merely meant that the developers had to redraw their plans to fit the requirements that the state lays out for them.
“The normal process when a permit comes into us, if we don’t like it, we don’t think it meets their requirements, we reject it, but they are free to come back,” he said. “They did that twice and we found that the second time they met our requirements. That is not unusual.”
And he rejected the notion that Wolff & Samson helped to bring the project to completion.
“There are always people lobbying for projects. That is the normal way things are done in America. People hire law firms and look for folks that have connections,” he said. “We do a lot of good work on projects. Just because Wolff & Samson are the attorneys doesn’t mean they get any special privilege.”
Michael Gerrard, an environmental law professor at Columbia University, said the process was typical of how projects work that are designed around environmentally sensitive areas. But four opponents of the project, contacted independently, each said that mischaracterizes the proposed Toms River Walmart. For one thing, the development was outright rejected, which fewer than three percent of similar projects are; secondly, the solution that was arrived at—in which the developer buys nearby parcels of land to move the endangered snakes to—is a novel one, and one with considerable risks to the animals.
“In this case the developer did not change the plan,” said Montgomery. “Instead, the agency reversed itself on the meaning of the regulations and adopted a new method of habitat offsets which a. was rejected in the 2010 denial, and b. has no scientific basis.”
“The DEP is a regulatory agency,” added Wolfe. “The governor’s shouldn’t be telling editorial boards that he is looking for ways around their ruling. That is dirty dealing.”
The case of the Walmart and the Northern Pine Snake is now before the state’s appellate court.
A lawyer for the developer said that he was “very optimistic” his side would prevail.