Who are NIMBYs and what do they want? A Planning Commission perspective.
By Steve Troskey, AICP
Most people interested in planning or development have heard the term NIMBY; Not In My Back Yard. As Planning Commissioners in a small town, we may run into “NIMBYS” at meetings. What do they want (or not want) and how do we interact with them?
Residents are often attracted to small towns because of the character, ability to get involved, or lower cost of living. These things also make some people afraid that any change will negatively impact them; that new buildings or residents will disrupt the very thing they love. Sometimes that is true, but most of the time in small-town Iowa, a new project is not large enough to affect the town’s culture.
When a new project is proposed the NIMBY’s often appear at City Hall. Maybe they don’t want a new house on the farm field next to them…maybe they’re worried a new gas station might generate more traffic. Oftentimes these concerns are due to the unknown. Our mind has a funny way of assuming the worst.
What can we do to make sure NIMBY voices are heard but don’t overwhelm the process with emotions?
- For projects that might cause any public reaction, make sure the developer meets with the neighbors before the Planning Commission meeting. No one likes the idea that a project is being “railroaded”. Frequent open communication is the best practice here. You won’t always have an agreement when you come out of these meetings, but people need to be heard.
- Who is doing the opposition? Is it a small minority of residents or a larger, broader section of the community? A small but loud group may seem like the majority, but make sure to look at what your whole town might want. Just because people show up to fight a project doesn’t mean it is bad. Opponents are generally louder than supporters but that doesn’t mean there are more of them.
- An important thought – residents can argue for their town but future residents cannot. And if you’re like most small towns, we need residents. Give a voice to those who might want to move into your community by listening to the developer or builder. Most of the time they are being honest – we can’t assume the worst.
- Many times NIMBYs are afraid of change but humans are experts at adaptation. Say a new subdivision of ten houses is built on the edge of town – after a few months, it will have become the new normal. And for most people, it will just become part of the community. Of course, not all change is an improvement but we need to look hard to make sure we’re not scared of any change.
- Some people will not find common ground on anything so there is no use in trying to get them to agree. They will always be mad about any change, so don’t let their attitude kill a project that will benefit your community.
Don’t let past mistakes define you. NIMBYs may point out why something years ago failed and use that as a reason why the current project should be denied. Don’t fall into that trap. Times change, people change, and markets change. A poor project 20 years ago is not the same project today. Use present data to make today’s decisions. You can learn from the past but do not let that define your future.