Wal-Mart has been trying to build a supercenter in Potsdam, New York since 1998. For almost eight years, citizens have been slowing the giant retailer down to a turtle’s pace. And now, real turtles may get in the way. A biology professor at the State University of New York has found two Blanding’s turtles near the wetlands on the Wal-Mart site in Potsdam. That discovery prompted Town Planning Board Chairman Tom Dodds to assure the media that the turtles won’t necessarily jeopardize Wal-Mart’s planned construction. Onsite surveys will now be conducted to determine whether the turtles are actually living in the wetlands. The state Department of Environmental Conservation says the Blanding’s turtle is seven-to-nine inches with a bright yellow chin and throat. Loss of the turtles’ habitat due to development has decreased the species’ population dramatically. Meanwhile, if the turtles don’t get Wal-Mart, the citizens of Potsdam have not given up their eight year fight — which is already a victory in its own right. According to the Daily Courier Observer newspaper, the North Country Citizens For Responsible Growth (NCCRG), which opposes the supercenter, has filed an “intent to appeal” a New York Supreme Court decision which ruled in favor of the Wal-Mart. The group has roughly two months to file its appeal. “This, indeed, might delay the construction starting date for the project,” a Wal-Mart spokesman told the newspaper. In March, Supreme Court Judge James Dawson ruled that the NCCRG did not have “standing” to bring an appeal, because they were not an abutter to the property, and that they did not follow the correct timeline for following an appeal. Neither of these rulings had anything to do with the actual content of the case. But the judge apparently ruled that a Wal-Mart supercenter is a permitted use in the Planned Development zone. NCCRG surveyed roughly 500 people in Potsdam, and people indicated they wanted the group to continue their opposition. The group maintains that the site for this project is not suitable for this scale of a development — which is a different issue than is the use permitted. They are objecting to the scale of the use, which is 188,000 s.f., or almost the size of four football fields combined. The citizens say the Judge’s ruling affirmed that the town Planning Board had the grounds to deny the project. Potsdam’s town supervisor said the NCCRG has “the legal right to do what they’re doing,” but said the town would prevail. “They’ll be adding more money to the $25,000 they’ve already cost the taxpayers.”
One might ask: why is the town of Potsdam putting up $25,000 in legal fees to defend a building permit for Wal-Mart? The retailer could have funded the entire legal cost themselves, and paid for the defense of their own building permit. The town of Potsdam was not obligated in any way to absorb that legal expense. If Wal-Mart wanted their permit — for which they will make millions of dollars annually — let them pay for the defense of their permit. Second, the members of NCCRG are taxpayers in Potsdam, and so they are helping to pay for the legal challenge and the defense — so they are paying twice to protect their First Amendment rights to petition government. If the tables were reversed, and Wal-Mart was fighting for a permit, they would spare no legal expense or opportunity to appeal. So if the town supervisor does not like the idea of her own constituents suing the town, they learned the tactic from Wal-Mart. The fact is, the town did not have to raise a penny for this legal battle, and it is only their own mismanagement of the case that transferred the cost to local taxpayers. Local officials should have asked Wal-Mart to defend its permit. It is not NCCRG’s fault that they failed to do that. For an earlier story, search Newsflash by “Potsdam.” Now, after 8 years of delay, the company has to deal with endangered turtles endangering their store.