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Editorial: Reassessing the meaning of backyard

Published: 5/5/2019 12:05:17 AM

The battle against change embodied in the acronym NIMBY, “Not in My Backyard,” is a source of constant conflict and occasional compromise.

It’s underway now in Franklin, where neighborhood residents object to a request to construct a 13-acre, 10,000-panel solar farm in their midst. It’s underway in Pembroke, where a group of horse-owning residents object to a developer’s proposal to build 48 homes nearby and reclassify roads now used as riding trails. It’s taking place quietly in Penacook, where residents fear that building high-rise apartment buildings on an industrial site will harm their quiet neighborhood.

NIMBYism, in one form or another, for reasons both sound and suspect, helped thwart a proposed natural gas pipeline in southern New Hampshire, the Northern Pass transmission project to bring Canadian hydropower south, solar and wind farm projects, affordable housing, halfway houses, drug treatment centers and homeless shelters.

It’s time to take a much harder look at NIMBYism and reject it when it runs counter to the public good.

New Hampshire has a serious housing shortage, with rising rents and home prices. It’s become difficult for young people to find affordable homes or apartments. That gives them an incentive to move elsewhere.

The problem is much worse in California, and in cities like Seattle and Boston, where groups have formed to advocate for YIMBY, or “Yes in My Backyard.” YIMBYs typically advocate for looser zoning restrictions to make it easier to increase the stock of housing. They advocate for laws that encourage the siting of solar farms and other forms of green energy.

There are problems with both approaches.

NIMBYism can thwart things society needs – places that provide social services, affordable housing, roads and the transition away from fossil fuels. YIMBYism can change the character of established neighborhoods and sometimes thwart rather than aid efforts to increase affordable housing.

Investors have been known to buy properties and convince officials to “upzone” them to permit greater density by promising to reserve a portion of the units for low and middle-income housing. Once its value is swollen by the zoning change instead of building, they flip the property for a big profit. That makes the land too expensive for affordable housing.

Last year, three Boston College professors published troubling research about the NIMBY phenomenon. Even in diverse communities it was primarily home-owning whites and professionals who attended public housing-related public meetings. Two-thirds of them opposed new developments. Only 14 percent spoke in favor.

Residents of low-income neighborhoods were far less likely to organize in opposition and less likely to succeed when they did. The dice were loaded against change.

Dartmouth professor Garret Dash Nelson is a historical geographer, someone who studies how humans create distinct geographic entities like backyards, neighborhoods, communities and the like. Writing earlier this year in Citylab, a web magazine affiliated with The Atlantic, Nelson argued that the focus in the NIMBY-YIMBY rivalry should be on the BY. Backyards in a global economy and the internet age are not what they used to be.

The globe, when it comes to combating climate change, is one big backyard. A city and surrounding communities, when it comes to providing affordable housing, are one neighborhood.

While the people most immediately affected by a proposed change should have the most say, Nelson said, “Sometimes achieving just and equitable goals for a larger community may require overruling the objections of a smaller, but more vocally organized, constituent community.”

We agree, but only when a proposed change that will disadvantage some will truly benefit everyone else, not just a few.

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