Citizen Wausau

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Not In My Back Yard

by on April 26th, 2010

A term that is often heard mentioned when there is some type of rezoning request or conditional use request is “NIMBY” – which stands for Not In My Back Yard.

Normally, when someone is trying to get a change in zoning or a specific conditional use, if there are people objecting, the “NIMBY” objection is the most common to find and the hardest to counter.  The reason why is that NIMBY, on its own, is really not a valid argument.  However, often there are very valid reasons to be against an issue and those issues get confused with NIMBY-ism.  There are times when the issues brought up by neighboring property owners are valid concerns that need to be taken into consideration.  However, there are other times when the concerns are completely unfounded with no facts or evidence to support them.

The NIMBY argument is a very emotional and passionate one.  It stems from the “my home is my castle” argument, and when a neighbor’s use of their property interferes with your use of your property; that can be perceived as an attack.

What is very difficult for public officials is to determine if the arguments being presented are valid, legitimate concerns that need to be addressed, or are they simply NIMBY-ism – arguments that are quite believable but when looking at them more in depth and with no emotion, there is little if any evidence to support them.

In the last five years or so, there have been a number of projects that have had to fight the NIMBY argument — some projects won, some projects lost.  Some still fight the fight.  Some fights are just now beginning.  I have seen projects lose the NIMBY battle even though there was no good evidence supporting the NIMBY argument.  I have seen projects win the NIMBY battle even when the objections given were accurate and verifiable.  The purpose of this article is not to say that NIMBY arguments are good or bad, but to open a dialogue about what NIMBY-ism is, when that argument has validity and when it does not.

In the last few years in the greater Wausau area, there have been a number of times when the NIMBY issue played a significant role in the final decision made by the local government to approve or deny a request.  These past examples include:

  • The newly proposed Woman’s Community shelter locating near NTC.
  • The proposed coffee shop to locate on Stewart Ave across the street from UWMC.
  • The proposed multi-family development on 25th Street between McIntosh and Townline.
  • The proposed second retail facility for Randlin Homes on Sherman and 8th Avenue.
  • The proposed “trolley apartments” on the East bank of the river by Bridge St.

In addition to these past examples, a current project still in its early stages is a proposed biomass electricity generating site in Rothschild.  A new project I learned about last week, that is just starting its NIMBY battle, is to locate the National Guard Armory on Franklin Street just west of Camp Philips Road (also known as 41st Street or Highway X).

The core of the NIMBY argument is simple – quality of life.  This new project next to my property will cause me to get less enjoyment from my property.  It will increase traffic. It will increase noise, crime, etc.  It will make my property less safe.  It will make my property less desirable to me, and thus, less desirable to others.  Of course, if the property is less desirable to others, it will lower the overall property values.

Every NIMBY argument hits one or more of those same issues, and there are times that those concerns are 100-percent accurate and the proposed use is really not consistent with the neighborhood and the proposed use should be denied.  There are other times where the concerns are not accurate and are merely perceptions which are not supported by historical evidence or other facts.  In those cases, based on the NIMBY argument alone, there is no reason to deny the proposed use.

For example, during the hearings on the Women’s Community location near NTC, there were arguments made about how the size and scale of the building didn’t match the size of neighboring properties, which would make it not a good fit.  This was an accurate argument as it related to the immediately adjacent properties, but there were other large structures nearby (including the NTC campus itself).  There was also a perception that having the Women’s Community Shelter in this neighborhood would make the neighborhood less safe as now perpetrators of domestic abuse would be “cruising” the neighborhood.  Evidence was provided that showed just the opposite to be true.  A final decision never needed to be made because before it got to that, the Shelter was offered a different piece of land that would also suit their needs.  (There was also NIMBY concerns from this new neighborhood, but they were not nearly as organized.)

Sometimes NIMBY concerns can include both valid arguments and arguments that don’t really make much sense when you think about them.  An example of this was the Sherman Street Randlin Homes proposal.  Randlin is a local non-profit that provides rehabilitation services to people (very often people who are homeless), and they have a specific focus on serving veterans (although their client base is not solely vets).  They had recently opened up a thrift store on 6th Street and donations were coming in at a larger rate than they had capacity to store them, so they were using a warehouse on Sherman Street to store their excess inventory.  The idea came to have “warehouse sales”, however retail sales in industrial zoning require a conditional use.  One argument from a “NIMBY” neighbor was very valid.  The neighbor indicated that last summer, a Porta-Potty was used and this created odors.  Therefore, a condition set forth by the city was that the plumbing in the building would need to be brought up to code and turned back on.  The other argument didn’t make much sense.  The neighbors were worried about the “type of people” that would be in the facility and they didn’t want these people in their neighborhood.  The reason why that argument didn’t make sense, is that even if the conditional use was turned down, the property would continue to be Randlin’s warehouse.

The current NIMBY battle over the power plant in Rothschild is still in the fact-finding stage.  Some NIMBY arguments don’t seem to carry much weight, such as traffic concerns (because this street already has very high traffic counts) and the use itself (because the property is already zoned heavy industrial and this is a permitted use within that zoning).  However, some of the other concerns including pollution levels, the eyesore of a 250-foot smoke stack, and whether a project like this will actually increase rates for electricity, may have merit.  Research needs to be done to determine if these concerns can be backed up with facts, or if they are just a perception.

The NIMBY battle for the National Guard Armory is only just beginning.  The hearing for the change in zoning was taken off the Wausau Plan Commission agenda on Tuesday as the National Guard was encouraged to take some time to educate the neighboring property owners on what kind of impact this would have on them.  This will be located not far from a fairly high-end residential neighborhood, so these neighbors of course will have questions on noise, how “ugly” the building is, traffic as convoys of military equipment come and go, and, of course, safety concerns about how any military installation is a potential target in this post-9/11 world.

What is a city government to do when they encounter a situation, such as the Woman’s Community Shelter or a National Guard Armory, when this is something that is needed. This is something that has to go somewhere. But, no matter where it goes, the neighbors say it needs to go somewhere else, anywhere – just not in my backyard?

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