It was a familiar scene for NIMBY-watchers like us: a proposal to re-open a closed landfill, a hostile reception from neighbors and residents, and a local question-and-answer session that morphed into the Spanish Inquisition as the night wore on and opponents became more emboldened. In this case, the fight was taking place in Albion, N.Y., a small town in the northwest part of New York state, but it could just as easily have taken place anywhere else.
Albion is home to the Orleans Sanitary Landfill, a facility that accepted municipal solid waste while it was in operation. In 1992, the landfill’s operators had their permit revoked after taking in more garbage than they had been allowed, and the site went bankrupt soon after. Since then, the landfill has been shuttered and a post-closure fund to maintain it went dry in 2009. For more than three years, leachate has been collecting at the site and has not been pumped away due to the expiration of the post-closure fund. According to Richard Penfold, a local developer that wants to re-open OSL, the leachate accumulation threatens the stability of the landfill as is, and is an example of how a well-maintained operational landfill can be more beneficial for Albion than a neglected inoperative one.
Still, the 65-person crowd that attended the developer’s information session recently at the Hickory Ridge Golf Course was not receptive to this argument. With just one resident who attended in support of the plan, the session was a reminder of a couple of quotes that we sometimes use in the NIMBY-fighting business, even though they originally had nothing to do with land-use battles at all.
First, we are reminded of Woody Allen’s famous advice that “90 percent of success in life is just showing up” – at least, when it comes to landfill battles. More often than not, the side that “shows up” the most – at their legislators’ offices, at information sessions like this one, and especially at city hall on the night of the big vote – will win that vote. For that reason, it is so important for developers to do the legwork of reaching out to residents and forming a coalition of allies in the affected community, and then getting them to show up where they are needed. Crowd attendance, and the attitude of the crowd, can make or break multimillion-dollar projects.
Second, the solitary supporter of Penfold’s landfill plan is an example of Andrew Jackson’s claim that “one man with courage makes a majority.” Jackson was likely talking about weighty matters of national importance, but the idea applies in other areas as well. Someone willing to break away from the crowd will get noticed, and their voice can sometimes counterbalance the conventional wisdom. In this case, the comments of the one supporter of the Albion landfill plan were so counter to prevailing opinion on the case that the local newspaper covering the story felt compelled to present his arguments earlier and more fully than those of the opponents. Because of this resident’s one-man majority, the first thing most people would read on this topic in the next day’s paper is his promotion of “tax benefits and other perks ... property value protections, groundwater monitoring and other safeguards for residents.”
The implications of these two quotes lead to our third: Winston Churchill’s admonition that “there is no such thing as public opinion. There is only published opinion.” In other words, our understanding of what people think about any issue is necessarily filtered through the impressions we get from news media sources. This worked to the NIMBY crowd’s advantage when they showed up to create the image of widespread opposition to the OSL reopening plan, and it helped Penfold when his “one man with courage” drew attention in news stories covering the information session. And you can bet that when it comes time to vote, the Albion Town Board will rely on that “published opinion” as its best barometer of where local residents really stand on this issue.