NIMBY Notes: Pride and Prejudice

NIMBY reactions to waste speak to matters of pride ... as well as property values.

Tempers are flaring in the wake of a recent New York City Council meeting focusing on the implementation of a plan to spread solid waste disposal facilities throughout the city. The plan will require new waste transfer stations to be opened and trash barges to be commissioned, and residents are unhappy about getting what they perceive to be the raw end of the deal. Councilman James Oddo put it this way: “The people of Staten Island have fulfilled their commitment. We are willing to take care of our own garbage. We’re not taking anyone else’s.” Oddo and his supporters have pledged to “line up shoulder-to-shoulder” and “fight like vicious dogs” to prevent the re-opening of a facility in Fresh Kills, Staten Island, which was closed in 2001.

If Oddo’s language seems strident, it’s because there’s a lot of history in Fresh Kills. The site was once one of the largest operating landfills in the world, at 2,200 acres. Accepting trash from not just Staten Island but all five of New York City’s boroughs, it drew so much public hatred that it spawned a secessionist movement. The mayor who oversaw its 2001 closure, Rudy Giuliani, said “People of Staten Island felt, and this is why the secession movement started, that Staten Island, both literally and figuratively, was dumped on by the other four boroughs.” In context, it becomes easier to understand how discussion of re-opening Fresh Kills also re-opened old wounds.

This is a lesson that developers would do well to learn. Too often, they treat opposition to a waste-disposal project as a problem that can be solved through better engineering. Concerns about smell are dismissed by promising six inches of daily cover and the latest odor-control technology. Worries about nearby aquifers and streams are parried by pledging to install an extra thick liner or advanced groundwater monitoring system. Fears of truck traffic are dismissed by restricting transportation routes. For people in the waste industry, who constantly deal with the nitty-gritty of landfill operations, the stigma of trash disposal is all but invisible. Address the practical problems, the thinking goes, and you remove the opposition.

The truth, however, is a bit more complicated. Residents’ concerns are often based in the heart, not the head. They’ll fight a project because of how they believe it will reflect on their personal dignity, or the worth of their community. What does it say about our town, they might think, that we’ve been the ones chosen to handle the county’s garbage? Why us? Are we looked at as the trash heap of our state? Painful questions of race, class and culture are often tied into these debates as well, rendering the accusations all the more toxic.

Roughly 150 miles southwest of Staten Island, a similar controversy is taking shape in Harford County, Md., a suburb of Baltimore. Edgewood residents resent a proposed waste transfer station, their concerns bluntly voiced by a local council member: “We feel dumped on … Don’t insult us time and time again. It makes us feel like you don’t care.”

The county government putting the proposal forward has responded in the right way; not by dwelling on the technical merits of the plan, but by addressing the underlying fears of disrespect and inferiority voiced by opponents. They point out the sacrifices made by other parts of the county, such as those who live near the county prison. Additionally, they are talking up ways in which the county has favored Edgewood, such as investing $100 million in capital-funded projects in the area or the construction of Edgewood High School and Deerfield Elementary School, which are “a cut above” facilities in rival Harford County town Bel Air. The debate here is yet to be resolved, but county officials are approaching it the right way.

It may seem strange that the caliber of a town’s new high school might determine its waste disposal plan. But when landfill plans pass from the engineers to the politicians, deeper questions of pride and community are just as important as design and technology.

Darden H. Copeland is managing director of the Calvert Street Group, a public affairs consulting firm focused on state & local affairs, land-use and development, and grassroots lobbying.

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