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Wal-Mart & Light Pollution

Greetings from Potsdam, New York, a small village of perhaps 6,000 (10,000 when the two colleges are in session). As picturesque as a post card, some people think of Potsdam as in the middle of nowhere. It's in the far northern reaches of New York State, north of the Adirondack Mountains and just south of the Canadian border. It's hard to find many places in New York that are much farther away from New York City. Potsdam, as a matter of fact, lodges considerably closer to Ottowa, Ontario, and Montreal, Quebec, than it does to any large New York city.

Wal-Mart must find Potsdam as appealing as I do, because it has plans on building a supercenter here -- on a wetland, no less. I remember seeing a full-page photo in the New York Times, sporting a flying eagle in front a beautiful wilderness background, with a message at the bottom of the page. It was a Wal-Mart ad that boasted of Wal-Mart's comittment to preserving and protecting the environment. Humph. . . it makes me wonder why this environmentally-friendly corporation wants to build this humongous supercenter on a wetland? It's my understanding that wetlands are disappearing at an alarming rate, that wetlands act as natural water purifiers and act as buffers against flooding. Although I appreciate wetlands, I have to confess that I know little about them. On the surface, anyway, the hypocrisy seems rather glaring.

Talking about glaring, I have grave concerns about light pollution degrading our view of the night sky. With a Wal-Mart Supercenter moving into the neighborhood, I have fears that the floodgates of sprawl are soon to follow -- especially since the Potsdam Town Planning Board is actively promoting Big Box development. For any readers who might be interested, the three letters below document some of my efforts to safeguard the night sky from (further) encroachment. I have begged and pleaded with the Town Planning Board and Wal-Mart to model the lighting at the Wal-Mart Supercenter after the eminently successful non-impact lighting employed by Springfield Prison in Springfield, Vermont -- the home of perhaps the most famous gathering of stargazers anywhere: the Stellafane Convention. To read about the Stellafane Convention and the Springfield Prison, click on this page, scroll downward, then click on the link in the purple sidebar on the left side of the page. If you like comic strips, here's a great one by Jay Ryan entitled GLARE.

The real possibility of having a Wal-Mart Supercenter in the neighborhood has done much to divide the community, and has created tension between the Village of Potsdam and the Town of Potsdam. In fact, there is presently a lawsuit against the Town of Potsdam and Wal-Mart. Details on the lawsuit can be found through NCCRG (North Country Citizens for Responsible Growth). In late June 2006, the DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) rejected Wal-Mart's waste treatment plan, designed by Tom Pahler, who until recently was a member of the Potsdam Town Planning Board.

Light Pollution Letters

Letter to Harold Demick, Chairman of the Potsdam Town Planning Board (July 22, 2004)
Letter to the Town of Potsdam Planning Board (November 26, 2004)
Letter to the Editor, Potdam's North Country This Week and Courier-Observer (June 2006)

Letter to Harold Demick, Chairman of the Potsdam Town Planning Board

July 22, 2004

Dear Harold Demick, Planning Board Chairman:

Thank you for accepting written comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). If possible, I would like to request that you extend the date for comments beyond July 23, 2004. I learned about the DEIS only very recently, and barely had time to respond. I suspect many residents of the Town of Potsdam aren't even aware of the DEIS. Citizen involvement should be a deliberative rather than a rushed process.

As a resident of the Town of Potsdam for nearly fifteen years and St. Lawrence County for about thirty years, I wish to address a quality of life issue that endears me to this area. I want to perserve a North Country visual resource -- a view of the starry sky. Too often, one of the byproducts of unregulated development is the great blight known as light pollution. Excessive and misdirected lighting has robbed many communities of the star-studded heavens and the Milky Way. Fortunately, this potential problem is easy to prevent by using good and sensible lighting in the first place.

Good lighting, in addition to preserving the stars, is safer and more efficient lighting. The reduction of glare enhances seeing, especially for older people -- and, yes, America is aging. Another big benefit of efficient lighting is a reduction in costs. More importantly, perhaps, efficient lighting reduces the burning of fossil fuels and reduces air pollution. It's a win-win situation for all the parties involved. I would love for this Wal-Mart to showcase the benefits of good lighting to communities around the world.

Astronomy absent of stargazing is like substituting "Cliff's Notes" for the literary classic that's above our heads. Colleges in both Potsdam and Canton give courses in astronomy. Clarkson University has an observatory just outside of Potsdam Village. I present stargazing shows around the area, and write scripts for the nationally syndicated radio shows "StarDate" and "Earth and Sky." I beg of you to consider having state of the art lighting at Wal-Mart for the benefit of our local community and for the world at large.

The high heavens, the perpetual harbinger of surprise and wonder, should belong to the common domain. May our commitment to stewardship and the restorative power of nature provide not only uncontaminated air, soil and water for future generations, but also a clear window to the universe. The scroll of the lore-laden heavens, more enduring than any library or archive, is humanity's shared inheritance, written in a language universal.


To Clear Skies,

Bruce McClure

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Letter to the Town of Potsdam Planning Board

November 26, 2004

To the Town of Potsdam Planning Board:

First of all, I want to thank all of you many times over for taking the time and energy to deliberate upon the DEIS, and for welcoming public input on the document. Though the process may be dry and tedious, I believe it's absolutely imperative that citizenry works together to insure future growth and development will benefit rather than degrade the community.

I am resubmitting my original letter of July 22, 2004, which expresses my concerns about light pollution. Much to my delight, a representative from Wal-Mart approached me, complimenting me on this letter and assuring me that Wal-Mart has all good intentions of installing the best outdoor lighting to preserve the star-studded heavens and the Milky Way. I was also pleased to hear Wal-Mart's pledge at Lawrence Avenue School that Wal-Mart offers and represents nothing but the best!

But alas, upon inspection of the DEIS document, I didn't see any reference to the best of low-impact, high-quality outdoor lighting. The lighting fixtures specified in the DEIS (Figure 11), I am saddened to say, are NOT the best. I beg of you to install full cut-off lights with a flat lens to minimize light trespass. I'm asking for Wal-Mart and the town of Potsdam to preserve a priceless North Country resource -- the night sky, an educational and cultural treasure chest that is worth saving for ourselves and future generations. I'm not asking for a handout but for stewardship -- a way of keeping the oldest and most enduring astronomy book ever written in the public domain.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no statement of policy in the DEIS regarding the use of "low-impact, high-quality outdoor lighting to preserve North County Skies." If I am mistaken about this, I would appreciate being corrected and informed. Enclosed within this correspondence is a stamped, self-addressed envelope. I request that some such statement of principle be spelled out in the DEIS, so as to verify the verbal commitment already made to me by a representative of Wal-Mart.

I have fears that some might think that light pollution from a Wal-Mart Supercenter might be "insignificant." If this represents your point of view, I allude to the story about "the straw that broke the camel's back." When I gave starlab planetarium shows at schools all around the East Coast, I saw firsthand the horrible blight of light pollution. I was always grateful to return home to the low traffic and the star-studded skies of the North Country.

In a nutshell, I don't think there's anything "insignificant" about Wal-Mart moving into the neighborhood. I for one think it'd be foolhardy to underestimate its repercussions upon the North Country, whether they prove favorable or otherwise.

This whole adventure with the DEIS and Wal-Mart is helping the Town of Potsdam to set a precedent for governing future growth and development. The Town has the golden opportunity to safeguard the local flavor of this small, quaint community from the pitfalls of rampant growth. Policy should seek ways to upgrade the Town and Village of Potsdam and the North Country, without endangering them to the insidiousness of sprawl. Why not insist on the very best of outdoor lighting, and adopt the attitude that perfect is good enough?

I hasten to inform you that there are four universities and an observatory, all of which are less than ten miles away from the proposed site of the Wal-Mart Supercenter. If you wish to emulate the best in outdoor lighting, please investigate the grand and glorious accomplishment of the Springfield Prison in Springfield, Vermont. Springfield hosts what might be the most famous and well-attended star party in the world -- the annual Stellafane Covention, which is located virtually next-door to Springfield Prison. When Springfield Prison tested its lighting on September 25, 2003, people couldn't even tell if the lights were turned off or on.

How about doing the same thing here in Potsdam? How about preserving (or better yet: upgrading) the North Country's view of the sky? The heavenly scroll has recorded the pilgrimage of humanity since time immemorial in the form of myth, history, and science, representing the cultural inheritance of the ages. Providing a clear window to the universe is certainly a grand way for Wal-Mart to set a shining example to the world and for Potsdam to establish itself as "the Cultural and Educational Center of Northern New York!"

Thank you for accepting my letter and giving it your due consideration!!

To Clear Skies,

Bruce McClure

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Letter to Potdam's North Country This Week and Courier-Observer

June 2006

To the Editor:

I count myself as rich, not so much because I have lots of money, but because I enjoy pleasures that require little consumption. One such pleasure is stargazing. The singer-songwriter Carol King expresses it well, "At night, the stars put on the show for free."

Unfortunately, for numerous communities, modern-day sprawl has drawn the curtains over this free nighttime attraction. A firsthand view of the heavenly stage and the lore-laden heavens, I wish to add, provides much more than mere entertainment. This is humanity's priceless heritage. The age-old constellations are worth saving for posterity. We impoverish ourselves whenever we allow the night sky -- the world's oldest and most enduring astronomy book -- to be removed from the public domain!

I have asked the Town of Potsdam Planning Board and Wal-Mart to install high-quality, low-impact lighting, so as to set a sound precedent for future development, and to protect the starry sky from the blight of light pollution. It's often said that we can have security or we can have the stars -- but not both. This is a red herring. Properly installed lighting not only helps to save the beauty and grandeur of the nighttime, but it results in safer lighting and more efficient lighting as well.

The Springfield Prison in Springfield, Vermont, provides the proof. Springfield hosts the annual Stellafane Convention -- perhaps the largest gathering of amateur astronomers in the world. The outdoor lighting at Springfield Prison doesn't trespass on the heavenly stage, however, because the state-of-the-art lighting directs it to where it's needed and prevents it from spilling over to where it's not. Springfield Prison is undoubtedly one of the best examples of the highest quality, non-impact lighting you can find.

If, indeed, Wal-Mart -- as its representatives insist -- offers nothing but the best, I look forward to lighting that emulates that of Springfield Prison. I think Potsdam, "the Cultural and Educational Center of Northern New York," deserves nothing less. Let's give all present and future residents in our community a lifetime ticket of admission to the nighttime theater, a cultural and educational resourse that elevates our thoughts and expands our vision.

Bruce McClure

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