When Nimbys lose, families gain new homes
When Nimbys lose their emotional fights to block new development, new families move into the neighborhood and enjoy new houses that otherwise would not have been built.
Real estate development provides homes, offices, shops, features of the built environment that define the quality of everyday life. Without the changes to the land required by our built environment, we would still be living in caves trying to subsist off the land like our stone-age ancestors.
However, too much of a good thing can be as bad as too little of it. When real estate development is done poorly, or when every last trace of the natural environment is eliminated in favor of the built environment, quality of life suffers. There is a middle ground where land development preserves natural features while providing high-quality homes, offices, and retail outlets.
Unfortunately, when land developers propose new projects, they are generally only as sensitive to the environment as the political process forces them to be. If left to their own scruples, land developers will maximize profit at the expense of everything else, including any natural or cultural features existing prior to development. People concerned about the natural environment play an important role in our land development process.
However, in California and in many other states, environmentalists go too far. They oppose all development because they believe their neighborhood was perfect when they moved in, but new development removes beautiful natural features, clogs the roads with more traffic, and changes the character of the community they moved into. In short, they become Nimbys, people who want no new development in their back yard.
True Nimbys don’t evaluate the pluses and minuses of new development and form an opinion based on facts. True Nimbys oppose everything, and in doing so, they fail to see the hypocrisy in their attitude and actions. After all, they wouldn’t be a resident in their own neighborhood if previous Nimbys had successfully defeated the project where they live.
The cartoon above is one of my favorites because it points to a simple truth that Nimbys conveniently ignore: The neighborhood they live in was better before their house was built and they moved in. The passage of time between when their house was built and a new house in their neighborhood doesn’t matter.
True Nimbys who argue against all new development fail to recognize that the house they live in or the stores they shop in represented the diminution of the quality of life to the true Nimbys that came before them. I wonder how many of them would go back in time and oppose the development where they live? And how many of them are willing to demolish their homes and allow the lot go feral?
Dana Point Nimbys
True Nimbys are easy to find here in California. A group of Nimbys called Save Dana Point is working to oppose all new development. They even want to roll back the positive changes they’ve made to their downtown over the last decade. A group of more rational Dana Point residents opposes them, but fighting emotional Nimbys takes more energy than most rational people have.
Since I am pro development, many people who haven’t read my personal writings find it surprising that I grew up in a rural area without much of a built environment. One of my minors as an undergraduate was Resource Management, where I was exposed to the writings of Aldo Leopold, one of the earliest environmental activists who wrote A Sand County Almanac, a classic inspired by the area where I grew up.
Most modern environmentalists who know of Aldo Leopold don’t realize that he wasn’t opposed to all development of human habitat. He recognized the two extremes, and in his era the political pendulum swung too far in favor of pure capitalist land developers. He fought to restore the middle ground, not to preserve everything as it was.
[I]f in a city we had six vacant lots available to the youngsters of a certain neighborhood for playing ball, it might be “development” to build houses on the first, and the second, and the third, and the fourth, and even the fifth, but when we build houses on the last one, we forget what houses are for. The sixth house would not be development at all, but rather it would be mere short-sighted stupidity. “Development” is like Shakespeare’s virtue, “which grown into a pleurisy, dies of its own too-much.”
Notice that he had no problem with the development and construction of new houses — as long as developers didn’t go too far.
He also articulated one of the most common arguments put forward by true Nimbys today:
In objection to the dedication of the Gila as a permanent wilderness hunting ground, it has been truly said that a part of the area which would be “locked up” bears valuable stands of timber. I admit that this is true. Likewise, might our sixth lot be a corner lot, and hence very valuable for a grocery store or a filling station. I still insist it is the last lot for a needed playground, and this being the case, I am not interested in grocery stores or filling stations, of which we have a fair to middling supply elsewhere.
I recently watched the residents of Carlsbad, California, vote down a new mall adjacent to the existing outlet mall. The project would have preserved 200 acres currently zoned for offices. One of the main (specious) arguments they put forth was that there was already plenty of shopping opportunities available, so this new mall wasn’t needed. It was true Nimbyism using Leopold’s argument to defeat a project that would have preserved an extra 200 acres of land. I doubt Mr. Leopold would have appreciated that.
Terri Pendergast used to enjoy walking her dog in the woods behind her house every day. She’d take a meandering path through the timber, her childhood stomping grounds, to trails leading to the Musquapsink Brook.
For Pendergast, it was a quiet sanctuary she shared with the deer, owls and other animals that made these woods their home. The woods butted up to the back of about 15 homes on Ell Road, turning yards into country oases just 25 miles from New York City.
But in June, those woods were suddenly gone, replaced by a 12-acre bald patch crisscrossed with muddy tire tracks to make way for a housing development.
Pendergast moved back to her childhood home on Ell Road in 2001. The year after she returned, however, a developer applied to subdivide the wooded parcel, a former fruit orchard, and build single-family homes.
Let’s strip away the emotional baggage and examine the facts above:
First, this woman grew up trespassing on a neighboring property.
She didn’t own it.
She has no claim to it.
And only through the kindness of the real owners was she allowed to wander around their land and enjoy its natural features.
We are not talking about a public park, government land, or land with unique environmental features like wetlands or endangered plants and animals. This was an upland woodlot in private ownership.
That sparked a years-long fight between neighbors of the proposed development and the developer, Caliber Builders.
The dispute reached a resolution after 14 years in June, when Caliber began tearing down the woods behind Pendergast’s house. It took only a few weeks to decimate.
I think he means to say it only took a few weeks to clear the debris from the site future families will call home.
“We saw the trucks and we heard them,” Pendergast said. “I would force myself to look and cry my eyes out, because it really affected me.” …
So we should stop land development because some trespassers might have hurt feelings? If we stopped activities normal to the real estate market because someone’s feelings might get hurt, we would stop all foreclosures and evictions too. (See: Should evictions be banned to stop hurting people’s feelings?)
As a side note, I empathize with her to a point. I was the manager on site during the construction of a subdivision where we had to remove several large oak trees. I had to turn my head away when the bulldozers pushed these over. However, I felt good about the new homes I was building on the site, so I quickly got over my angst about losing the trees.
… the planning board approved Caliber’s application on Jan. 29, 2008.
Despite that, Caliber would not break ground for another eight years, after the Northgate Condominium Association sued the Hillsdale Planning Board. …
And everyone overlooks the fact that these neighbors could have easily solved this problem: they could have banded together and bought the land from the homebuilder and preserved it themselves. Once it was their private property, they could have preserved it or developed it as they wished. Apparently, it’s cheaper to sue someone to steal their property rights than it is to buy the property and secure these rights for themselves.
The court fight traveled all the way up to the state Supreme Court, which ruled against Northgate in 2013. While Northgate continued to fight the development at the local level, the borough allowed Caliber to build in June. …
“It was a very sorrowful outcome for anybody who cares about the local places,” Charkey said. …
And it was a joyous outcome for anyone who cares about the quality of life of the new families who will move into the neighborhood.
Luciano Trujillo, a neighbor of Pendergast’s is more accepting of the outcome.
“In the beginning I wanted to keep the woods, but once the builder got his approval, what are you gonna do?” he said.
Kudos to Mr. Trujillo for admitting the truth. This entire lawsuit was initiated because a group of people wanted to enjoy a benefit provided on a neighbor’s property — at this neighbor’s expense.
It wouldn’t be any different for Ms. Pendergast to propose tearing down her neighbors house to plant trees on it to improve her property value.
Pendergast said she would move if not for her job.”I want to move out of the state,” she said. “I’d like to go somewhere that has more concern for the environment.”
Ms. Pendergast, come out here to California. Nimbys will embrace you with open arms — as long as we don’t have to build a new house to accommodate you: The people in California who think and act like you do would oppose that.