By Dom Nozzi
November 25, 2009
NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) hysteria played a destructive role in Gainesville, Florida in the years I worked there as a town planner (1986 to 2007).
The irony is that the NIMBY is convinced, in their zealotry, that their tactics are the tools of salvation, and their repeated failure on many of their campaigns simply instructs them to re-double their efforts to fight an even more vicious battle in the future.
It is a strategy ensuring that the Gainesville area would be locked into a downwardly spiraling future.
Some examples of the fruits of NIMBYism in Gainesville…
The Hogtown Greenway
By waging this ferocious, emotionally angry campaign, the NIMBYs succeeded in changing the city charter to prevent the City from EVER building a paved trail along Hogtown Creek. By doing so, the NIMBYs have guaranteed that the creek will continue its incremental degradation. The trail prohibition amplifies the most insidious enemy of an urban creek: Neglect. Because the paved trail was the only way the creek would allow benign public access (and, therefore, on-going, real-time citizen awareness of the condition of the creek), the prohibition of the trail will ensure that the incremental destruction will continue to go unnoticed and therefore unrectified. Every month, new homes, shopping centers, offices, or industrial projects are built close to the creek. Without a public trail, such harmful insults to the creek will remain ignored. The creek will ultimately die a slow death, because the most significant threat it faces is neglect, NOT a public bicycle and pedestrian trail.
Residential Suburban Development
Perhaps more so than any other form of development, NIMBYs turn out to oppose the construction of residential subdivisions. They yell and scream, and frantically try to find ANYTHING that can be used to stop the project — stormwater problems, endangered species, wetlands, large trees, traffic. Ultimately, such desperate tactics almost always fail. All of the energy and resources of the community are directed toward achieving the least likely outcome: prohibition.
As a result, no time or energy is directed, proactively, toward what is REALLY for a better future: Removing travel lanes from over-sized roads (Not that most NIMBYs are concerned about big roads. Nearly all of them LOVE multi-lane “bliss”). Of course, this “road diet” tactic is very long-term and will not likely bear fruit in our lifetime (it will take a long time to reverse the Big Road network we’ve singlemindedly assembled over the course of 50-70 years).
Therefore, we need an interim tactic to bridge ourselves to a sustainable future: Quality, walkable, compact, mixed-use urban design regulations.
By failing to direct any energy toward the establishment of such regulations, and almost always failing to stop a development project, the end result of the NIMBY battles is that we continue to get walloped by disgusting, auto-oriented, sprawling residential misery. Misery that is built all around us every week.
The Greenways/Weiss Project
This project was proposed in the northwest portion of Gainesville. NIMBYs screamed. Elected officials buckled. Project “halted.” Result of the NIMBY war against Weiss? Instead of the mixed use, compact project proposed by the Weiss developers (albeit not great new urbanism, but certainly better than most of what is developed in Gainesville), Gainesville would ultimately see auto-oriented, low-density, single-use, single-family development out there — the kind of horror we see in sprawling areas all over the U.S. Which is ultimately much more ruinous for the financial, ecological, transportation, and social health of this community.
Another example of the likely fruits of NIMBYism.
Activists devoted an enormous amount of energy trying to prohibit the construction of a tall cell tower near their neighborhood in downtown Gainesville (I share in the horror of such a structure).
It is nearly impossible to prohibit construction of the tower.
Why do we not consider using this crisis to create an opportunity? Why don’t we consider the approach of Palm Beach County? There, the towers are allowed. But they must be attractive, BRICK towers resembling clock towers or church spires. The towers could (through regulation, NOT prohibition) be an attractive addition to the ambience of the neighborhood. Or, co-location can be required on existing tall structures. Instead, the NIMBYs will fight for prohibition. And almost always, they will lose.
Result: ugly towers will go up.
Here, a walkable, compact, infill residential project was proposed at the southwest corner of Northeast Park in Gainesville. The project, in all likelihood, would have delivered healthier nearby retail (retail would be a short, walkable distance away, which would provide more affordable housing, since households would not need to own as many cars), an improvement of values and the condition of a neighborhood that has been in an impoverished decline for several decades, improved transportation conditions for the community, increased amenities for the park, brought healthy tax revenues to the city, and diverted pressures to live in sprawlsville.
NIMBYs screamed. Elected officials buckled. Project “halted” by commissioners who had paid lip service to precisely this kind of infill project for years. Message to future developers: “Don’t build infill projects in the city. Build in sprawlsville. There you will find a lot less pain, heartache, cost, and anger…”
Fate of that portion of the neighborhood: Continued low-density and low-income downward spiral.
NIMBY battalions played a role in election losses in Gainesville. Many NIMBYs became enraged by elected officials who did not fight to the death to PROHIBIT their pet evil project. A comment I heard from a Gainesville environmental NIMBY: “Newport and Hutch (progressive, green conservationists who have achieved and fought for many environmental causes for decades) are NOT environmentalists!!!!” Many NIMBYs ended up splitting the green vote by voting for fringe NIMBY candidates. Many NIMBYs “stayed home” (didn’t vote) because they could not stomach the thought of voting for “anti-environmental” Newport or Hutch.
Many NIMBYs failed to campaign hard to get Newport, Hutch, or Barrow elected.
These sorts of NIMBY electoral actions resulted in Gainesville and Alachua County voters electing several right-wing candidates that are strongly opposed to environmental conservation.
These NIMBY actions resulted in the election of a mayor for Gainesville who was disastrous for Gainesville’s environmentalists. At a time when Gainesville needed elected officials to possess wise leadership and courage to wage a war against auto-dependent sprawl, Gainesville elected “Dr. No” — a mayor who was merely an empty vessel. Someone who was more than willing to do the bidding of the enraged-citizens-of-the-week. A mayor with a suburban, populist, no-growth agenda. A man who cares little about promoting transit. A guy who loves multi-lane roads and big parking lots. A guy who despises higher density infill development and mixed use. A man who has no agenda except to say “no” to any and all proposals objected to by hysterical NIMBYs.
Given all of the above, it is increasingly clear that Gainesville needs to change its name. Nimbyville. Much more accurate about the Gainesville character.
Ultimately and ironically, NIMBY battles will deliver Gainesville a future of big roads, big parking lots, accelerated loss of important natural areas, higher taxes, more auto dependence, and endless urban sprawl.
How often did such NIMBYism result in the acceleration toward what south Florida, southern California, Atlanta, and Houston have become?
Too many fail to understand that their actions ENSURE that our future will be ruinous sprawl. We have met the enemy. He/she is NOT a “pseudo-environmentalist” elected official, as defined by NIMBYs. He/she is NOT a compact, infill developer. He/she is NOT an evil corporate polluter.
He/she is us…