TECHNOLOGY: Visual Simulations Allay NIMBY Concerns

No one wants a landfill for a neighbor. So in 1997, when Houston-based Waste Management Inc. (WMI) needed to expand its DFW Recycling and Disposal Facility in Lewisville, Texas, it hired Austin-based land planning firm Richardson Verdoorn to help prevent a “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) standoff.

The firm had begun developing expertise in “precise visualization of proposed landfills.” Using a technique that combines computer-aided drafting (CAD) with photography to produce a visual simulation, the firm promised to create a precise, realistic and value-neutral image of how the landfill would visually affect its surroundings.

Although CAD has been used for some time, the combination of photography and CAD for landfill visualization is new. As an added bonus, this process is admissible as evidence in court.

Initially, WMI wanted to change DFW's height by 200 feet. However, Richardson Verdoorn found that this would make the landfill too big for permit approval. Expanding horizontally, on the other hand, would require expensive landfill liners and drainage systems. So WMI had to determine what to do to make the DFW expansion compatible with land-use regulations.

In developing a new landfill expansion proposal, engineers needed to address the vertical expansions' aesthetic and environmental impact. Conventional land-use analyses are two dimensional, but a vertical expansion required a three-dimensional interpretation.

CAD modeling alone makes a landfill resemble a “moonscape,” whereas altered photographs alone don't provide the necessary precision for an administrative law hearing, says John Worrall, principal who developed the precise visualization technique.

Realizing that existing visualization methods had their shortcomings, the company took photographs of the landfill from several different vantage points, then obtained the engineers' digital CAD file that indicated landfill contours and sequencing.

From the CAD file, planners constructed a 50-millimeter view that indicated distances, directions and elevations identical to the different vantage points from the photographs. These photos were scanned and merged with the CAD drawings. A presentation was prepared to show landfill shape, volume and screening variations.

This visualization revealed that the ultimate height was not as important as the massing of the landfill. Armed with this knowledge, planners reconfigured the landfill by reducing the steepest slopes without significantly affecting the height or the volume.

The CAD/photo visualization allowed WMI to test various aesthetic improvements, such as berms, contours, vegetation and screening. The technique also helped engineers create realistic computer simulations of how the proposed landfill would appear from various vantage points as it builds up over time — 10, 20 and 30 years down the road.

The process allowed WMI to combine an aesthetic image with engineering requirements to encourage public acceptance of the landfill. The visualization also helped to minimize the impact any modifications might have on the company's return on investment and provided compelling evidence during permit hearings. Eventually, a vertical expansion of 123 feet was approved.

Overall, the visualization process was a cost-effective way for WMI to test the feasibility of a proposed landfill expansion and gain public acceptance and regulatory approval. Although the visualization process ranges between $25,000 and $50,000, it explores a multitude of options and maximizes the chances that a landfill project will be permitted, Worrall says.

Since 1997, Richardson Verdoorn has created dozens of landfill simulations. The technique also can be used in other NIMBY applications. And, the firm has helped clients visualize the aesthetic effects of surface mining and residential development.

In 1998, the company received an Honor Award from the Texas Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects for the development of its landfill-visualization process.