NIMBY is Not a Four-Letter Word (Part 1)

Many years ago, when I published a community newspaper in southeastern Pennsylvania, Wal-Mart announced it intended to build a super store just outside of town.

For a number of reasons, we didn’t think this was a good idea, and so while our reporters were told to cover the story fully and fairly, our editorial page vigorously opposed Wal-Mart’s plan. That position was complicated by the fact that the man who owned the land on which Wal-Mart proposed to build was my business partner and friend, who needless to say, was anxious to close the deal. Such conflicts are common in the world of small towns and community newspapers, where you can’t hide from the people you’re writing about. This was further complicated by the fact that his friends razzed him over morning coffee for not being man enough to control the newspaper of which he was part owner. As the owner of a mushroom farm he was used to having those who worked for him do what he said – but he also came to understand that the newspaper was a different kind of business and so, while our relationship went through some rough patches, we were still friends at the end.

Wal-Mart accused its opponents of being NIMBYs (the pejorative acronym for Not In My Backyard) – and I suppose we were. Our local merchants were having a hard enough time surviving, and the prospect of consumers saving 29 cents on a garden house seemed a heavy price for bankrupting the hardware store. In addition, the anticipated traffic congestion and road “improvements” required to feed the retail beast threatened to permanently change the landscape of this still largely rural area.

So yes, we wanted Wal-Mart to go away, to go wreck some other neighborhood and leave ours alone. But there was something more: we believed that small communities should not just roll over for what was then the country’s largest corporation – that if more of us resisted, maybe we could encourage better alternatives than such a destructive form of growth. We fought for several years, and while in the end we didn’t win – Wal-Mart is today on my friend’s former property – the final plan was a big improvement over the original proposal, and I like to think we made some difference in the long run.

Fast forward 25 years to the Department of the Interior’s recent decision to open virtually all the nation’s coastal waters to oil and gas drilling. This, we are told, will return us to “energy dominance” and national greatness. But if that’s true, how come almost nobody in the coastal community in which I live – or any member of Maine’s congressional delegation, for that matter – seems to want it?

The NIMBYs are back, and as I’ll discuss in the next post, there promise to be a lot more us.

James G. Blaine

About James G. Blaine

Most of us undervalue what seem our tiny contributions to our communities and the world. As a result, we feel powerless, even victimized. But, like the butterfly effect in science, the lives we lead with our families, in our communities, and at work – all the so-called little things we do – collectively change the world. As I grow older, my ambition grows more modest but not less important: to participate fully and to contribute what I can. That’s my goal with this blog.