In a direct challenge to public records laws everywhere, officials in North Whitehall Township, Pennsylvania have created a distraction in an important Wal-Mart supercenter project that is costing citizens time and money — all to ‘protect’ the secrecy of Wal-Mart’s site plans. Schnecksville, Pennsylvania is a 1.3 square mile area within North Whitehall Township. Schnecksville is a suburb of Allentown, Pennsylvania, in Lehigh Valley. It has a population of roughly 2,000. The community has 7 Wal-Mart stores within 20 miles, including three supercenters, with a supercenter in Whitehall a mere 7 miles away. Wal-Mart has proposed a 176,846 s.f. superstore on 32.6 acres at Route 309. In the fall of 2007, local residents formed a group called North Whitehall for Sustainable Development (NWSD), which began raising the issues of traffic safety; air, water, noise and light pollution, and loss of open space. Sprawl-Busters reported on November 4, 2007 that the North Whitehall Supervisors had granted the township’s Planning Commission an extension of time until the end of the year to review Wal-Mart’s plans. But the case took a bizarre twist when Wal-Mart’s public plans suddenly turned private. When the resident’s group went to the township for a copy of Wal-Mart’s filings, the township’s lawyer informed residents that they could not make copies, or remove from the township offices. According to North Whitehall’s attorney, Wal-Mart’s plans were “copyrighted, and it would be up to the developers to decide it they want to provide copies to the public.” After pleading with the township to avoid a fight on this issue and to release the site plan under the state’s Right To Know law, the citizen’s group this week finally was forced to up the ante. NWSW went to Lehigh County court and filed an injunction to require the township to provide them with copies of the plans. The group is seeking to force the town to allow copies to be made of the plans. But the township’s lawyer, Lisa Young, insists that township officials were afraid to make copies for residents out of fear that Wal-Mart would sue them for copyright infringement. Young said the township has lent NWSD one set of Wal-Mart’s plans. But the public can only view the plans in the township’s offices. Residents “have never been denied access,” Young told the Morning Call newspaper. “We have tried to offer as much as we could.” Attorney Thomas Dinkelacker, representing NWSD, said the group needs more than one set of plans on loan to allow its experts to review them before the Planning Commission meeting on March 25th. “The municipality is stymieing public comment on this process,” Dinkelacker told the newspaper. “My issue is not with Wal-Mart, my issue is with the township.” NWSD’s lawyers explained that the township cannot be sued for copyright infringement. NWSD’s complaint says that once a developer submits a plan for review by a public body, it becomes a public document, and can be copied. The group says that federal copyright law allows reproduction of copies “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting … or research.” The site plan is the major document that local officials will use to determine traffic flow, stormwater runoff, environmental issues, and compliance with zoning laws. If the court sides with the township, developers will start marking all their documents as “copyrighted” to make it harder for local residents to study them.
North Whitehall Supervisors will have the final say on this proposal. The township’s website says the community is ”Primarily agricultural in nature… a desirable place to live and continues to do so by retaining its unique blend of residential and rural character.” A Wal-Mart supercenter is clearly incompatible with the goal of retaining rural character. Readers are urged to leave a phone message for the three supervisors, Ron Stahley, Chairman, Terry Stoudt, Vice Chairman, and Ron Heintzelman. Two of these people will decide the fate of the Wal-Mart application. Call 610-799-3411, and leave this message for the North Whitehall Supervisors: “I urge the Supervisors to stop shieilding Wal-Mart’s plans, and move on to the real issues in this case. The idea of Wal-Mart copyrighting a public document is absurd, as is the notion that the giant retailer would sue you for infringing on their copyright. To paraphrase Moses: “Let my papers go!” These documents need to circulate widely, and be viewed by anyone in the township who cares about their future. You already have 7 Wal-Mart’s within 20 miles of North Whitehall. With a population of only 2,000 people, there is no compelling market demand for another grocery store. You are forcing your own taxpayers to waste their money on a paper chase.” NWSD is spending legal money on this capricious decision by the township. To help the group maintain its battle against Wal-Mart, go to the group’s website: http://home.ptd.net/~nwsd/ or send a check to: North Whitehall for Sustainable Development, Box 117, Orefield, PA 18069. For earlier stories on this community, search by “Schnecksville.”