Not in My Backyard

Everybody in the solid waste business has at least one not in my backyard (NIMBY) story to tell. Far too often, when a landfill, transfer station, recycling center or composting facility is proposed for a particular location, its closest neighbors immediately start protesting. Usually, they complain about perceived health or environmental problems caused by the facility. In many cases, NIMBYs mostly are upset about all the trucks that will start using their roads.

Sometimes their concerns are legitimate. For the past year, I have been a member of a D.C.-based advisory panel, whose job was to site transfer stations. I voted against one site that the panel had chosen because we had never visited the site. (My fellow panel members voted for that site partly because we were running out of time to make our selections, but that's a subject for another column.)

Needless to say, the neighbors of this proposed site, led by their council member, are fighting the panel's decision. They live in D.C.'s poorest ward. They want a grocery store in their neighborhood. We are giving them a transfer station. Our failure to visit the site only intensifies their opposition. They believe we ignored potential problems with the transfer station. Also, they feel as if they are being dumped on.

Sometimes, however, NIMBYs are simply a "don't bother me" reaction to a new neighbor. A recent edition of the community newspaper that serves the neighborhood where my office is located had a wealth of NIMBY stories. The front page told of protests against a proposed townhouse development, the expansion of a private school and the siting of a foreign government's chancery. Other stories spoke of battles over a university's expansion plans, a proposed addition to an apartment house, a communications tower and a street re-opening. It seemed like every proposed change in this affluent, primarily white part of Washington was being protested. These people just don't want to be bothered by anything that might impinge upon their lives.

My favorite NIMBY experience happened in my own neighborhood. A telecommunications company wanted to build a monopole next to the local YMCA. The tower, which would be used for wireless phone transmitters, would be immediately adjacent to the Capital Beltway and one or two hundred yards from the nearest house. The Y would benefit from a nice rental fee.

At our neighborhood association meeting, a member dramatically decried the ugliness and health dangers of the tower and moved that our association oppose it. As she sat down, her cellular phone went off.

Maybe NIMBYism is inevitable in our culture. I can understand the protests against the transfer station site. The panel failed in its siting process. However, I can't understand most of the other protests I mentioned, except that some people have too much money and too little to do. But then, maybe NIMBYs are just a small price we pay for living in a democracy.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Waste Management Associations or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: [email protected]