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NIMBY Notes: The Camel's Nose

NIMBY fights are always tough, but some are tougher than others. One pattern we’ve noticed is that, on average, attempts to expand waste facilities generate less opposition than attempts to site new ones. This seems to apply whether it’s a physical expansion (increasing the acreage of the facility), an intake expansion (increasing the amount of waste accepted per day) or a material expansion (increasing the types of waste accepted). We sometimes refer to these smaller facilities seeking expansions as “camel’s noses,” after an old Arabian proverb: “Once the camel gets his nose into the tent, his body is sure to follow.” For players in the waste industry with big, controversial plans, it may make sense to keep this proverb in mind before going public.

A minor dust-up in Middle Smithfield Township, Pa., is a good example of how the camel’s nose phenomenon can work. Recently, municipal officials from that community and two others – Smithfield Township and Lehman Township – held an information session for residents to discuss a plan for the towns to open up a joint composting center for yard waste like leaves, grass clippings and branches. The officials were subjected to some pointed questions tied to common concerns including odor, traffic, property values, expense and more.

But the towns had done their homework and were able to accurately portray the proposed composting center in as unthreatening a manner as possible. To address odor concerns, it was promised that food waste or chemicals would not be a part of the initial 10-year contract. The cost to build the facility was modest – just $20,000 – and would be split between the three towns. And traffic and quality of life concerns were mitigated by the proposed operating hours: just 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM, only three days a week, for only four months out of the year. As added reassurance, the facility would be secured with fencing and cameras and be subject to state regulations governing the proper management of these types of facilities.

Plans for the compost center are not set in stone, so there is still time for fire and brimstone. However, the reaction so far seems measured. As of this writing, no community group has sprung up in opposition. The Pocono Record, which reported on the information session, described a local abutter as the primary challenger to the plan. By the end, the paper reports, she felt officials had answered “many, but not all of her questions,” that she remains “still a little concerned about the unknowns,” but “I’m going to have to trust their word.” The article has generated no comments on the local Topix message board and just two on the Pocono Record’s article – both positive. It appears so far that the project just isn’t scary enough for a big NIMBY showdown.

While that’s obviously great news for these communities, it carries lessons for those of us in the waste industry as well. Starting off with a smaller-scale, less impactful facility that’s easier to get permitted can accustom residents to the less intimidating realities of waste disposal. Once it becomes time for an expansion, potential opponents will have had a long time to see how the fear mongering stacks up against their day-to-day experiences. Of course, that is conditional on operating the starter facility – the camel’s nose – in a responsible and transparent matter, but that should be the default assumption for any developer today.

The folks proposing this particular facility in Pennsylvania are municipal officials, not a private firm. And we have absolutely zero indication that they want to expand this compost center in any way beyond what they’ve proposed. But the fact is that, once their original contract expires, this facility could be in a good position to take on more than just yard clippings, or to remain open for longer periods. It wouldn’t be the first time that a facility grew, over time, to a scale it could never achieve initially. Smart developers should keep that in mind as they plan for the future. 

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