According to environmental advocates, the impact of coastal development in the past three decades has been disastrous. Advocates say that Barnegat Bay's fishing industries, including a quarter million dollar clamming trade, have almost collapsed. Poisonous jellyfish, which thrive on pollutants found in lawn fertilizer, have invaded Barnegat Bay, making long stretches unswimmable and threatening the region's $3.5 billion tourism industry.
"The amount of money generated by development in Ocean County is so enormous it's controlled the land use agenda for decades," said Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.
Montgomery does not claim that all the tradeoffs involve outright bribes. He is also troubled by legal contributions that foster cozy relationships. One example he gives is the Walters Group, an influential South Jersey development company that has donated nearly $160,000 to Republicans in Ocean County since 2003. The group has six major developments under construction or already completed in the county.
"There's corruption like with Van Pelt where he takes an envelope stuffed with cash," Montgomery said. But he says even legal contributions can corrupt the system. "In Ocean County it's endemic."
But developers and politicians reject accusations that their actions have brought irreparable environmental harm and that legal campaign contributions represent corruption. They say the source of pollution in Barnegat Bay is not new development -- with its tightly regulated zoning codes and eco-friendly storm water management -- but old development, which takes up the majority of the shoreline.
"If that's the solution, 'blame development', you're not gonna clean up Barnegat Bay," said Joe Del Duca, general counsel for the Walters Group. "You've got to live somewhere. Populations have to grow."
Del Duca said that the Walters Group has spent millions on eco-friendly buildings, which have only a negligible effect on the nearby environment. Though the company may spar with environmental groups, it has not been charged with any illegal behavior.
Van Pelt, who also served ten years as mayor of Ocean Township, made his name pushing through similar projects in the county.
He fiercely defended his record to ABC News, explaining that the deals made as mayor and assemblymen were the best for the town – a necessary compromise between development and environmental concerns.
"They have to protect the environment and I understood that," Van Pelt said of the Sierra Club's efforts to limit development.
"People are going to develop anyway," he added. "Whether I'm here or someone else is here. We just tried to do it the right way."