LEGAL: Not in My Backyard: The Sequel

The not in my backyard, or NIMBY, mindset refers to local feuds about undesirable land uses. In the 1970s, the targets were solid waste landfills and hazardous waste sites. A decade later, it was connected with community backlash against low-income housing, drug rehab centers and homeless shelters. Today, it refers to any potential threat to neighborhood stability and property values.

Homeowners groups and community associations still battle real estate developers and governmental authorities, and often citizens fight among themselves. Disputes between neighborhood factions can get loud and angry, and each side has lawyers who have a ready explanation of why the cause is legally sound and defensible.

Increased wealth, dwindling open space and a disdainful sense of entitlement have fueled strife to the point where almost any irritant becomes an excuse for competing factions to settle the score in the courthouse.

"Generally in this era, people are thinking of smaller and smaller backyard issues," says Rosalyn Baxandall who teaches at the State University of New York, Old Westbury, N.Y. "People of a certain class think they have these rights and that they have earned them."

The lack of civility in civic matters has produced petitions and counter-petitions, lawsuits and threatened lawsuits, overflow crowds at land use hearings, and an overall community iciness that gives elected officials goose bumps. As a result, local politicos have added other acronyms: NIMTOO - "not in my term of office" and NIMBL - "not in my bottom line."

Are there bona fide reasons for the anger, resentment and hostility expressed by citizens and residents about the ordinary stresses and strains of civic-life?

Emotional arguments typically overshadow legitimate concerns. "In our neighborhood, people object to anything for all kinds of reasons," said the chairman of an Upper West Side local community board in New York City. "Some of the reasons you can't even fathom until you hear it," he added.

The suburbs have become particularly testy battlegrounds because residents resent mushrooming development, surging population and agonizing traffic. "We have to reconcile why we are here in the suburbs and how we retain what we love about them without sacrificing other parts of it," said town supervisor Marion S. Sinek of New Castle, N.Y. "Everybody wants the amenities that belong to a municipality, but at the same time they would like to retain the rural look, and something has got to give."

Although circumstances differ from place to place, the fundamental structure of civic feuds is constant: the proponents of a project claim to be bettering the community; the opponents, who see the project as a threat to the quality of life and property values, raise environmental, fiscal and public safety concerns.

Battling groups represent a full employment opportunity for engineers and other technical experts. After officials in serene, upscale Fairfield, Conn., announced plans to renovate an open field for adult softball leagues, opponents hired a hydrologist to study potential adverse effects from water runoff. Supporters of a proposed nature trail on bluffs overlooking the rocky North Shore on Long Island hired engineers to disprove claims that the bluffs could not support the trail.

The group opposing the ball field cite environmental hazards and increased traffic and noise in a neighborhood of expensive homes. "People move into this area because of its rural character," said the group's president. "It is extremely important to us that we preserve the character."

Meantime, a member of Fairfield's recreation board decries the opposition. Other parts of Fairfield carry much of the civic burden, she noted, including most ball fields, the dog pound, a sewage treatment plant and - a landfill.