Franke: NIMBY is alive and well

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Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) demands recognition as a universal truth with claims both on natural law and natural rights. Its logic is unassailable. It must be, based on the number of people who claim Bill of Rights level protection under it. No one has offered a refutation acceptable to the NIMBY choir.

Unless one appeals to common sense. But then, we are speaking of the political arena where common sense is generally not welcome.

Recently the NIMBY creature was forced out of hibernation by a decision of the Allen County Commissioners about the location of a new jail. Yes, those insensitive politicians picked somebody’s back yard for the jail. Not literally, of course; the site is a large, county-owned field currently being used as a training range by the Sheriff’s Department. It is also located next to a major solid-waste landfill. More about that later.

Truth be told, there is no significant residential housing in the immediate vicinity. This is agricultural ground being redeveloped into light manufacturing and warehousing facilities. True, there is a school a half mile down the road, not exactly backyard but close enough to be introduced into evidence.

This is not the part of the county where I live so I can take a cavalier attitude about the location. It’s not even in my township, let alone my backyard. That’s a fair cop.

My point is that there is always someone opposed to locating almost anything if it is close to their neighborhoods. These people have legitimate complaints about such land use’s negative impact on their property values, the major source of accumulated wealth for most.

The irony of the situation is that we citizens demand a high level of tangible services but don’t want to be visually reminded of them. We love sausage; we just don’t want to see it made. Take that landfill mentioned above. It faced substantial protests when first proposed. Think about it: If we don’t have landfills, what happens to all the garbage we wasteful consumers put curbside each week? It must go somewhere, and we can’t use New York City’s former solution of dumping it in the ocean offshore of New Jersey.

This reminds me of an issue decades ago when a farmer requested authority to add a cattle feedlot to his operation. Note that he was a farmer in agriculturally zoned land. Some houses had been built individually along this road and several of these homeowners contested the farmer’s petition. Their irrefutable argument? We don’t need feed lots; we can buy all the beef we need at the grocery store. I rest my case.

The same opposition has been seen when utility companies propose running electricity transmission lines near housing. You can count on NIMBY to show up, front and center. None of the protestors are willing to cut back their electric service to avoid the required transmission improvements. Just put the line somewhere, anywhere else.

The more libertarian among us would argue that this is to be expected when government is given excessive zoning powers, or any zoning authority at all. Just look at Houston which continues to grow at a phenomenal rate despite a lack of zoning ordinances. As a case in point, the city is currently building its third interstate bypass loop around the urban area due to unrelenting growth.

A limitless set of examples of this can be found by doing an internet search of one’s local news archives. Somebody wants to build something and others will oppose it. Perhaps that is the nature of a representative democracy in which citizens have the right, some would say the duty, to involve themselves in governmental decision-making. One can see the wisdom of Adam Smith, John Locke, James Madison and other Enlightenment thinkers in constructing a polity where civil discourse among competing interests is encouraged and channeled appropriately to outcomes advancing the common good. See Federalist 10 for Madison’s take on this.

But back to Allen County’s new jail. This issue has been on-going for several months as a federal court ruled that the current jail was overcrowded in violation of inmate rights. The current jail, itself a replacement for the one I recall seeing as a youngster, is downtown near the courthouse where criminal trials occur. Why we need to continually build larger jails is a question for another time, as is what rights prisoners should have.

The three Fort Wayne city councilmen who are protesting the site selection arguably are doing their duty to represent their voters. If every other elected official takes the same attitude about his district, what then?

NIMBY at work. We must build a new jail, just not anywhere near me. I wonder if the shoreline of New Jersey is still available?

Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

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