An elusive turtle is stopping a multi-million dollar development

This creature sleeps most of the year, buries itself in swamp muck, fits in the palm of your hand — and can stop a $40 million, 1,400-job superstore development dead in its tracks.

Meet the 4-inch-long Eastern mud turtle, the mightiest creature on Staten Island — if it really lives there.

The state has ordered a Manhattan developer to launch a needle-in-a-haystack search for the rare reptile in a forested wetland that is ticketed to become a big-box retail center.

Its possible presence a mile from the Goethals Bridge is the latest twist in a decades-long drama pitting local conservationists against BJ’s, the big-box retailer set to anchor a 225,000-square-foot commercial complex.

“The turtles have at least bought us time,” said Tony Rose of the Natural Resources Protective Association.

Eastern mud turtles have never been seen on the property. In fact, they have been seen only twice in all of New York state since 1887.

But one of those times was in Staten Island, in a different part of the borough, in 2002, according to the state’s Natural Heritage Program, which tracks sightings of endangered species.

“Our experts did an assessment of all species on the property as part of the environmental review process,” said attorney Mitch Korbey, who represents property owner Charles Alpert. “This animal was not identified there.”

The tiny turtles can only live in marshy woods that flood in the spring, just like Alpert’s land, the conservationists argue.

“This is the same type of area where the mud turtle was seen on the island’s south shore,” Rose said. “These wetlands rim the whole island, and this is the last stand of trees on the north shore.”

Alpert has been trying to build on the property since the 1980s, when the state declared his parcels to be protected wetlands. A legal settlement in 2012 removed a chunk of his land from the state’s environmental shield.

The City Council approved his plans to construct a huge shopping center, complete with a members-only gas station and an 840-car parking lot, in 2017. The project will hire up to 1,000 construction workers and will bring in more than 400 permanent jobs, Korbey said.

But before the developer can get a final state sign-off, he now has to prove a negative: that there are no Eastern mud turtles on the site.

Experts will place up to 20 traps on the property in late spring, when the reptiles are most active, and will have to check them daily for up to 20 days for any sign of the critters, the Staten Island Advance reported.

That’s not good enough for local tree-huggers, who plan a guerilla operation to join in the hunt.

“The state is leaving it up to the builder, so we’re going to go in ourselves,” said Jack Bolembach, a member of the Coalition for Wetlands and Forests. “We’ll have an environmentalist put the right traps in, and we’ll check them with volunteers.”

“The state says this would be the perfect environment for these turtles,” Bolembach said. “Now we only have to find them.”

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