NIMBYism is an attitude shared by many metropolitan Washington inhabitants. NIMBY (not in my back yard) sentiments occur when people take a negative view of proposed changes that seemingly will affect them: in particular, future real estate development or redevelopment. Often unwelcome, change is both feared and resisted.
Hardly a day goes by without news about controversies surrounding public or private-sector projects under consideration. Local newspapers routinely print letters to the editor in which the writers voice dissatisfaction with such projects for a multitude of reasons.
Skepticism and overt resistance arise when proposed changes are believed to threaten private property interests, community character, environmental quality and a sense of personal security and well-being. And residents readily act on their beliefs by publicly and sometimes legally fighting proposed change.
For supporters of change who see it as desirable and beneficial, the term NIMBY has a negative connotation. Change proponents tend to view opponents’ beliefs and actions as baseless, founded primarily on emotion rather than facts.
NIMBY anxiety focuses on similar kinds of projects, issues and impacts. The most common reasons for NIMBY opposition are the location, size, planned uses, height and density of proposed real estate developments. Criticism of projects almost always addresses the same concerns: architectural, functional and socioeconomic incompatibility with adjoining properties and neighborhood character; project-generated traffic promising to overload already congested streets; inadequate parking on the project site; and increased competition for limited off-site parking nearby.
Opponents typically claim that off-site infrastructure, in particular the surrounding road network, is inadequate. In cities and suburbs, the quality of schools, school enrollment and school budgeting are hot issues whenever a proposed new development includes housing intended for families with school-age children.
Propose building a housing project or mixed-use complex incorporating subsidized residential units, and inevitably some neighboring property owners will object. Include other kinds of affordable housing or housing for special populations, and even more neighbors will object.
Real estate owners and investors worry that proposed changes in neighborhood quality could decrease the value and income-producing market potential of their property. Housing could become less desirable for potential purchasers or tenants. And real estate mortgage financing could be adversely affected.
Sometimes residents will oppose even a project that purports to comply with applicable zoning laws and so is buildable by right on the project site. Opponents may suspect that the developer is taking advantage of regulatory loopholes, has failed to meet the spirit of comprehensive plans and regulations, or has been granted undeserved concessions or waivers by jurisdictional authorities.
Specific projects are not the only target of NIMBYism. Proposed zoning and land-use regulation changes likewise elicit strong reactions and resistance.
Opposition can be especially intense when prospective changes would allow mixed-use projects within or next to single-use residential zones; special, nonconforming uses in residential zones; density increases within zones, even as a bonus for additional public amenities; more height and massing flexibility than previously permitted; and reduced on-site parking requirements.
Many perceive regulatory changes to be too beneficial for developers and contrary to the interests of local residents. Some even believe that developers and government officials corruptly conspire to effectuate such changes for the purpose of increasing real estate investment profits and the jurisdiction’s property tax revenue. That is why demonizing developers and government officials is sometimes part of NIMBY thinking.
But demonization is rarely justifiable. Periodic revisions to zoning regulations are necessary when the circumstances that originally prompted those regulations have changed. Social and economic conditions, demography, culture, urbanization patterns, transportation behavior, technology — they all change.
When is NIMBYism justified?
Opposition is called for when there is evidence that a proposed project will cause problems, destroy things worth preserving, prove unsustainable and ultimately fail. NIMBYism is not justifiable if the only question asked is: How will this proposal help me today?
Future projects are not being planned for you personally. Rather they are for coming generations: for your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect, a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland and a regular guest commentator on “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” on WAMU (88.5 FM).