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Battle on the Bay

All land-use battles are not created equal. Every community is different, and what resonates in one area might fall flat somewhere else. That’s why we’ve written previously on the need to understand the lay of the land—politically, culturally and beyond—before going public with a proposal likely to provoke opposition. And a recent dustup in the San Francisco Bay Area is a great example of the ways a city’s culture can factor into its NIMBY wars.

San Francisco is a city divided when it comes to those buildings often considered the most “benign” waste processing facilities: recycling centers. On the one hand, environmentally-conscious voters there have voted to require a certain minimum number of these establishments be sited in and around the city, and there is tremendous social and civic pressure for the city to hit high benchmarks in recycling rates every year. But at the same time, San Francisco is home to a higher-than-average number of affluent, activist types with lots of time on their hands—in other words, the perfect NIMBY rabble-rousers. The result is a clash between the city’s formal and informal recycling mandates and its self-appointed class of neighborhood advocates who view the recycling centers as blights on the community.

Folks like Ors Csaszar are caught in the middle. Csaszar owns and operates a 20,000-sq.-ft. recycling facility in the Bay Area and recently applied to open a new facility. His new facility’s permits came relatively easily, until some residents got wind of the project and began to mobilize against it. As a result, San Francisco Zoning Administrator Scott Sanchez suspended a key permit for the new recycling center, according to the San Francisco Examiner. Csaszar must now go to the Board of Appeals to fight the permit’s suspension.

But he isn’t going alone. Advocates of recycling centers around San Francisco have cleverly tapped in to some of the other passions of San Franciscans—things like awareness of the environment, support for social justice, and concern over gentrification—to make the case that facilities like Csaszar’s should be welcomed, not shunned. They argue that San Francisco’s much-lauded recycling rate would not be possible without common and easy access to recycling centers. They point out that for thousands of residents at the very bottom of the economic ladder, the income generated from collecting cans and bottles represents a small, but important, stream of income, allowing them to support themselves. And they warn that a zoning policy that prioritizes the property values of the affluent and influential will result in gentrification run amok—a city solely for the haves, with no room left for the have-nots. As more and more high-powered tech companies (and their legions of well-paid engineers) have moved into the Bay Area in recent years, the skyrocketing cost of living in San Francisco has made this a very real worry for huge swaths of the city.

There is some evidence that these counterpoints are registering. The Examiner reports that Csaszar’s proposed facility has generated 697 petition signatures in opposition and 884 in support. It also cites a local supervisor, Eric Mar, who said the “businesses are important for the city to achieve its environmental goal of zero waste by 2020.” He also said “many people” rely on recycling centers “for a small but consistent income stream that they really need to survive in this city as the rents go up and prices go up in our city.” Most interestingly, the facility’s opponents are being forced to disavow disparaging comments some of their ranks have made about recycling centers’ supposed tendency to attract the homeless: a big no-no in a progressive city that values social justice.

Will all of this be enough to save Ors Csaszar’s recycling center? The results of his appeal are still pending. But whatever the result, everyone in the waste industry should sit up and take notice that their defenders have found smart, locally-tailored issues to fight on—and then find similar issues for themselves. 

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