New Jersey snakes have strangled a Burlington County housing development. They have slowed plans for both a Wal-Mart Supercenter and a 500-home subdivision in Ocean County to a crawl. And they are forcing a Garden State Parkway widening project through layers of environmental studies and extra work.
The lowly corn snake and northern pine snake - constrictors that are not endangered in any other state - are rare enough in New Jersey to be protected species.
That status triggers extra environmental reviews and layers of tough regulation and remediation.
Developers, predictably, are seething - especially when just a few snakes halt a project worth millions of dollars. Some complain that because corn snakes and northern pine snakes are common in other parts of the United States and are sold in pet stores, they shouldn't have special status in New Jersey.
"I think sometimes we create laws and follow the letter of it, and the bigger picture is forgotten," said Bob Meyer, a developer who dropped his 110-home project in Medford after three corn snakes were discovered on the site.
Carleton Montgomery, director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, defended the state's strict animal-protection standards.
"These snakes are part of an ecosystem, and they're a predator in the life of the Pine Barrens," he said. "If you say, 'Well, there's a healthy population of them in Georgia - let's get rid of them here,' you'd be removing one of the key pieces of the puzzle in our ecosystem."
Since 1979, New Jersey has listed the colorful, generally docile corn snake as endangered, which means its survival in the state is in immediate danger. It is one of eight reptiles on the state's endangered-species list.
The pine snake, a dull-colored, secretive serpent, is listed by the state as threatened, which means it could become endangered if its habitat continues to deteriorate.
The sighting of just two pine snakes at a development site in America's most densely populated state was enough to bring the world's biggest retailer to its knees.
Wal-Mart had planned a Supercenter straddling Manchester Township and Toms River in Ocean County. Then two snakes were spotted on the site.
Manchester Mayor Michael Fressola said the Wal-Mart developer had offered to buy extra property behind the site for a snake reserve, move the two pine snakes there, and electronically monitor their movements.
The state Department of Environmental Protection rebuffed the plan. The Wal-Mart developer appealed that decision to a state administrative law judge, who has yet to rule.
Snakes and other endangered animals are known to live near the 17 miles of the Garden State Parkway proposed to be widened near Toms River.
The New Jersey Turnpike Authority said it would build a $9 million tunnel beneath the expanded highway so snakes and other wildlife could safely cross. The DEP is considering the plan.
In Jackson Township, the fate of a nearly 500-home development planned on Grawtown Road is also uncertain. A nearby resident found a dead pine snake and called the DEP.
Jackson officials are considering whether to require more environmental studies before granting zoning and planning approvals.
The snakes' greatest victory may have been in Medford, where the township announced last month that Meyer had withdrawn plans for his housing development in the Pine Lakes area.
Local officials said they were upset that the project had died, saying the development was tied to a deal that would have preserved nearly 400 acres of farmland - also endangered in New Jersey.
They said that Meyer had planned 100 fewer homes than zoning laws allowed, and that the development would have infused the Medford Lakes sewerage authority with $2.5 million from hookup fees that would have paid to rebuild flood-ravaged dams.
"This is a win-win-win situation," Burlington County Freeholder William S. Haines Jr. said when the project was announced two years ago.
Meyer crafted a deal in which he would pay $13 million to preserve the Medford farmland in exchange for approval for 110 houses on 98 acres at the edge of the Pinelands. The county and township agreed to contribute $700,000 for the land preservation to seal the agreement.
"This was a fantastic opportunity to preserve all this land, and have net reduction of houses, and save taxpayers millions of dollars," Mayor Scott Rudder said. "The corn snakes foiled this opportunity."
Meyer said the Pinelands Commission, which oversees the vast federal reserve in New Jersey, had ordered a search for more snakes and additional studies to determine the development's environmental impact. Meyer said he already had spent $200,000 on preliminary studies and feared he'd lose anyway if he spent more.
"It's very difficult to invest money in something when you don't know what the determination will be," he said. "And the rules kept changing."
John Stokes, executive director of the Pinelands Commission, said the extra studies would have helped the commission decide how many houses could be built - if any - without affecting the snakes' survival.
"We have a legal obligation and a moral obligation to protect habitat for very rare animals," he said, explaining that corn snakes are among the rarest of the endangered species in the state. "The fact that three were found on the property is indicative that the property is very valuable from a natural-resource perspective."
The Pinelands Preservation Alliance's Montgomery said people miss the point when they say a snake or two stopped a development.
"That attitude is going to lose us what little bit of nature we have left in New Jersey," he said. "People need to look at the ecological imbalance that would be created if the snakes' habitat was destroyed."