NIMBYism Essay

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NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard) refers to the protectionist attitudes of, and oppositional tactics adopted by, community groups facing an unwelcome development in their neighborhoods. NIMBYism is an acute sociopolitical problem since it typically involves opposition to projects that place most of the burden on those living closest to the site while dispersing benefits to the much wider community (e.g., city, region, or nation). Waste disposal and landfill sites, hazardous waste and nuclear facilities, airports, homeless shelters, low-income housing, prisons, schools, and even convention centers and sporting stadiums all pose NIMBY problems.

In the United States, since the 1970s NIMBY opposition has drastically hampered the siting of many facilities considered important and even necessary to the well-being of the overall polity. Some frustrated observers have developed a series of wry acronyms to classify NIMBY attitudes. These include NOOS (Not On Our Street), BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything), and NIMTOO (Not In My Term Of Office), which reflects the propensity of local politicians to ride NIMBY waves.

The Essence of the NIMBY Problem

The NIMBY problem is inherent in any democracy and especially any form of government that recognizes the right of local residents to have input into decisions that affect them. The central difficulty is that polities that allow local residents to play a significant role in planning decisions regarding their neighborhoods are likely to end up with a dearth of socially needed projects. This is because the benefits of NIMBY projects are usually spread broadly among a large population, while the drawbacks and costs of these projects tend to be focused in concentrated form on the small group who inhabit the host community. The latter are therefore highly motivated to oppose the project strenuously. However, because the benefits of the project are diffused over the broad community, the beneficiaries are often less vocal than the opposition groups.

One solution to the unequal distribution of costs and benefits that characterize NIMBY problems is to use part of the economic surplus that would result if the project was implemented as compensation for local residents (e.g., providing neighborhood parks, lower local taxes, and other desirable amenities). However, redistributive solutions are hampered by a number of obstacles, including transaction costs. These include difficulties in determining who should represent the local community in compensation negotiations; the prevalence of holdouts because some residents may be opposed to the project under any circumstances; residents’ fears of possible risk to their homes and neighborhoods; difficulties in getting accurate information about the project’s likely costs; and the uncertainty created by the fact that no democratic government can guarantee that future governments will not reverse a particular program or course of action designed to compensate for, or mitigate the impact of, a NIMBY project.

Of course, not all NIMBY projects are, in fact, desirable to the broader community. Thus NIMBYism can halt projects that should never have been proposed in the first place. It can also result in improvements being made to proposed projects that are eventually built.

NIMBY Opposition

NIMBYism tends to develop in three stages. In Stage 1, word of the project breaks, and opposition, often in fairly visceral form, starts from those living closest to the proposed project. Indeed, one iron law of NIMBYism is that the closer people reside to a proposed project, the more likely they are to oppose it. In Stage 2, the debate moves into a public arena, and the opposition arguments become more reasoned. Stage 3 often consists of a long, drawn-out conflict, which may involve some kind of arbitration. The winner is often the side with the greatest stamina for a long, drawn-out conflict.

Opposition arguments generally focus on two areas: the possible threat to property values, and safety. With respect to the property values, studies show that oppositionists often wrongly perceive a negative impact on the value of their property. Local property values tend to be more closely associated with broader phenomena rather than specific projects. As regards concerns about safety, these vary with the specific group associated with the project. Most likely to trigger alarm are such substance abusers as drug addicts and alcoholics and certain types of ex-convicts. Next would be those with mental disabilities. Other concerns that opponents commonly express about a project’s impact on the neighborhood include fears of more traffic and bringing in unkempt-looking people.

The opposition generally uses a range of tactics— letter writing, marches, political lobbying—but their most effective weapon is the zoning hearing. Since NIMBY projects typically involve a land-use variance, there are usually public hearings at which the opposition can gather strength.

Strategies for Overcoming NIMBYism

If the group intent on introducing the project wishes to pursue a conciliatory (nonregulatory-based) strategy, it has several options for attempting to win community-based support. These include education (television, radio, public meetings, mailings, and leafleting campaigns), the creation of community advisory boards, and making concessions. The concessions can include modification of the project’s design and the inclusion of programs to benefit the neighborhood. However, voluntary cooperation is unlikely to succeed alone, given the transaction costs discussed earlier.

Regulatory Approaches

As a result, an alternative strategy for those wishing to implement NIMBY projects is to seek regulatory protection, typically from the state, that can bypass local politics and opposition. States have developed a variety of regulations that can be sorted by how hierarchical and interventionist they are. The effectiveness of each of these approaches depends on the context, especially the local political regime, and on the nature of the NIMBY project. For example, a hazardous waste siting will usually be implemented only if there is a highly hierarchical regulatory regime in place. Yet the presence of such a regime does not guarantee success, and indeed the project may fail if it triggers civil disobedience.

Among the least hierarchical regulations are those that are information enhancing and designed to produce a full exchange of data between the parties involved. Among the most important are environmental impact statements (EISs), which show the likely effect of a project on the local physical and natural environment (e.g., population size, traffic, air quality, sewage facilities). The 1969 National Environmental Policy Act requires an EIS under many circumstances, and numerous states have passed analogous legislation. Other information-enhancing regulations are determination of need statements, which obligate a project’s developers to demonstrate why the project is needed (at the proposed site). Information-enhancing regulations may ease a project’s acceptance by reassuring residents about a project’s likely impact. On the other hand, they may hamper a project’s acceptance by providing data with which opponents can discredit it.

More hierarchical and interventionist are process-enhancing regulations, which influence the mechanisms by which the parties involved negotiate. Such regulations may call for the creation of specific local committees intended to ensure the representation of parties affected by a proposed facility. Other regulations may stipulate public participation measures, which are designed to allow broad public involvement (e.g., public representatives on siting and oversight boards), and still other regulations may include negotiation and arbitration regulations, which provide a further framework to the negotiations between developers and community representatives (e.g., by specifying the timing of negotiations, by imposing penalties for refusing to negotiate in good faith, and by setting up dispute resolution mechanisms such as binding arbitration). These process-enhancing regulations seek to reduce certain transaction costs (e.g., by specifying who will represent the community). On the other hand, by introducing extra layers into the process, they may slow down and even be detrimental to the project’s acceptance. Even with these process-enhancing regulations, the main decision-making authority remains in the hands of the developer and the local negotiating parties.

The most hierarchical category of siting regulations gives the state broad powers to preempt negotiations between developers and the local siting committee or to overturn decisions made at the local level. These measures—administrative controls— substitute state mandates for local decision making.

Examples include state overrides, which give a state agency the authority to veto decisions made at the local level; state preemptive authority, whereby specific state agencies may make siting decisions themselves; and state inventories and ownership, whereby state officials may inventory, and even buy, suitable sites and then enter directly into negotiations with potential developers.

Civil Rights Approaches

Another approach taken with some success by supporters of certain NIMBY projects has been to appeal to the civil rights of the project’s direct beneficiaries. For example, in 1989 the Illinois legislature obligated every home rule municipality to address the local need for group homes. Broadly helpful here have been the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which broadens the scope of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include the disabled; and the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1989, giving the handicapped the protection of Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (the Fair Housing Act), which outlaws housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, and national origin. The latter has been interpreted to prohibit discrimination against the developmentally and physically disabled (e.g., recovering alcoholics, the mentally disabled, people with AIDS).

Bibliography:

  1. Dear, Michael. 1992. “Understanding and Overcoming the NIMBY Syndrome.” Journal of the American Planning Association 58:288-300.
  2. Richman, Barak D. and Christopher Boerner. 2006. “A Transaction Cost Economizing Approach to Regulation: Understanding the NIMBY Problem and Improving Regulatory Responses.” Yale Journal on Regulation 23:29-76.
  3. Robinson, Gail. 2001. “Not in My Backyard.” Gotham Gazette, April 30. Retrieved March 25, 2017 (http://www.gothamgazette.com/environment/1699-not-in-my-backyard).

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