Darden Copeland, Managing Director

October 22, 2013

3 Min Read
NIMBY Notes: Reclaiming Reclamation

When a waste firm faces opposition to siting a landfill in a community, they’re contending with two similar-but-not-entirely-the-same problems. First and foremost, many people simply oppose the plan on its face. That’s always going to be a hard obstacle to overcome, but in our work and in this column, we’ve helped many developers come up with ideas and tactics to lessen that opposition.

The second problem is that when most developers outline their ideas to mitigate the impact of their landfill – in other words, to defuse the opposition – they face tremendous skepticism. It’s not just that most people oppose a landfill. They also doubt that all the promises to make it bearable – jobs, host agreement fees, quality-of-life protection and eventual reclamation – will come to fruition. This skepticism is understandable, but it’s much harder to win needed permits when substantive offers, made in good faith, fall on deaf ears.

That’s why what is going on right now in Staten Island, N.Y., is so important; not just for New Yorkers, but for the entire waste industry. We’ve written about Fresh Kills Landfill before. Loathed by Staten Islanders, it was officially closed down more than 10 years ago by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani after half a century of receiving most of New York City’s trash. As part of that closure, the city embarked on a 30-year plan to reclaim what was once the largest landfill in the world. Fresh Kills Landfill would, one day, be Freshkills Park.

As any developer who has tried to site a landfill can tell you, nothing provokes more scornful laughter from a NIMBY crowd than the idea that a landfill is anything other than a permanent, everlasting mound of trash. The very notion that it can be beautified – its surface covered with soil and grass, its borrow pit transformed into a lake, its air clean and fresh – is categorically rejected. And to be fair, it is a counterintuitive concept for the layman. It seems impossible that kids could play baseball on a field that a generation ago was a dumping ground for municipal solid waste.

But the first phase of Fresh Kills Landfill’s reclamation has just been completed, and the results speak for themselves. New York City’s Parks Department recently held a “sneak peak” event to let observers explore the 300 acres (of a planned 2,200) that have been reclaimed so far. A correspondent from Gothamist, a NYC-focused blog that writes about culture, events, food and nightlife (in other words, much more reflective of the average person’s reading habits than Waste360), had this to say:

Here are some surprising things about Freshkills Park: First among them is that most of the site doesn’t really look like a landfill. The hills are rolling and there are picturesque waterways. Plus, as already mentioned, there are the views of other parts of the Tri-State Area.

There are more than 500 small gas wells dotting the property, but they’re not very big. They’re there because NYC’s trash is being turned into biogas...

Another surprising thing about Freshkills Park is that it doesn’t stink. It actually smells rather pleasant. So, if you’ve never been to the outermost of the outer boroughs, take the time today and check it out.

The write-up comes with dozens of attractive photos.

This is a great story, not just for New York City, but for everyone in the waste industry. Fresh Kills’ undeniable transformation from a landfill to a park – one that can be verified not by industry publications but by one’s own lyin’ eyes – is living, breathing proof that yes, landfills can be reclaimed and beautified. Even the largest, most hated landfill in the world, in the biggest city in America.

And if developers can truthfully argue that they can transform a landfill into an idyllic park, their other claims on job creation, host community revenue and quality-of-life preservation will carry much more weight as well, which is a gift to residents and the waste industry alike.

About the Author(s)

Darden Copeland

Managing Director, The Calvert Street Group

Darden H. Copeland is managing director of the Calvert Street Group, a public affairs consulting firm focused on state and local affairs, land use and development, and grassroots lobbying.

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