April 16, 2000
Now It's 'Nothing in My Backyard'
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
AIRFIELD, Conn., April 14 -- Here
in the heart of tranquil, suburban Connecticut, there is loud and angry strife
over a plan to renovate the field behind
an elementary school so it can be used
by adult softball leagues. In Chappaqua,
N.Y., residents have been fighting a
small civil war over where to build a
much-needed middle school and which
grades to put in it.
On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a recent battle raged for more than
eight months over where in Riverside
Park to put a new dog run. In Port
Washington, on Long Island, homeowners' groups have blocked a nature trail
from being built on bluffs overlooking
the rocky North Shore. Every neighborhood has its factions, every faction has
a lawyer, every planning board has a
Nimby, the overcooked acronym for
"not in my backyard," once referred to
disputes about garbage dumps and hazardous waste sites. In the 1980's, it
came to symbolize a backlash against
affordable (read: lower income) housing and social service sites like halfway
houses and homeless shelters, virtually
anything seen as a potential threat to
property values. In many cases, it still
refers to all of these.
But in wealthy communities across
the New York region, the pitched battles
are now over ball fields and libraries,
school buildings, churches and housing
for the elderly -- projects once seen as
pillars of an upright community. Instead of pitting citizens against big developers or government, they often pit
neighbor against neighbor in ugly feuds,
dividing parts of the same town, for
example, or homeowners and a local
With so many battles under way,
there is now an arsenal of acronyms.
Added to Nimby and Lulu, for "locally
unaccepted land use," there is Nimtoo,
the elected official's retort, "not in my
term of office," and Nimbl, the budget
director's cry, "not in my bottom line."
Hard-liners can try Niaby, "not in anybody's backyard"; Nope, "not on planet
Earth"; or Banana, "build absolutely
nothing anywhere near anyone."
The problem, particularly in the New
York area, according to politicians,
planners and academic experts, is a
combination of much wealth, little open
space and a culture permeated by what
many say is a heightened sense of entitlement. Add in stricter environmental
laws and society's increasingly litigious
tendencies, and the result is Nimby defined down so that almost any irritant is
a fair reason to tie a community in
"Generally in this era, people are
thinking of smaller and smaller backyard issues," said Rosalyn Baxandall, a
professor of American studies at the
State University of New York in Old
Westbury. "People are fighting for
these little perks," she said, noting
that wealth breeds a sense of entitlement. "People of a certain class
think they have these rights and that
they have earned them."
In some cases, there are serial
complainers. The Beresford cooperative on Central Park West, home to
numerous celebrities, fought for the
better part of two years to stop construction of the American Museum
of Natural History's new planetarium, saying that it would lead to
more noise, crowds and pollution and
that it was just plain ugly.
The lawsuits failed, the planetarium is open and the Beresford is now
protesting plans for a monument
honoring Alfred Nobel on West 81st
Street, saying the block is already
too crowded with a hot dog stand,
newspaper boxes, a subway station
and a bus stop to also accommodate
tourists gawking at a 19-foot statue.
Such heightened civic discord,
marked by crowded zoning board
hearings, petition drives, angry letters and bitter lawsuits, poses a
thorny question: whether there are
legitimate reasons for people to feel
so beleaguered or the long bull market has spawned a comfort class of
adults even more spoiled than their
Some Nimby combatants clearly
agree with the comfort-class explanation. "I am astounded at the xenophobic rantings of my neighbors,"
Alan Neigher, a lawyer, wrote to
Fairfield's planning and zoning commission about the ball field dispute
here. "There is an underlying, whispered sentiment among too many of
my neighbors that Greenfield Hill is
somehow exempt from the ordinary
travails of civic life. It is argued that
because we pay more taxes, we
should have more privileges."
The neighborhood battles can help
address legitimate concerns. On the
Upper West Side, for instance, safety
issues emerged over putting a dog
run in Riverside Park where pets
and their owners would have to cross
a running track, creating the possibility of collisions with joggers. But
such points are typically overshadowed by emotional arguments.
"In our neighborhood, people come
out objecting to anything for all kinds
of reasons," said Eric M. Nelson, the
chairman of Community Board 7 on
the Upper West Side. "Some of the
reasons you can't even fathom until
you hear it."
The battles have become so prevalent in the suburbs, where people feel
besieged by sprawling development
and exponential population growth,
that several local officials said residents must reconsider their expectations.
"We have to reconcile why we are
here in the suburbs and how do we
retain what we love about them without sacrificing other parts of it," said
Marion S. Sinek, the town supervisor
of New Castle, which includes Chappaqua. "Everybody wants the amenities that belong to a municipality,
but at the same time they would like
to retain the rural look, and something has got to give."
The paradox is perhaps best
summed up in what may be the most
common land-use dispute throughout
the region: the opposition to cellular
telephone signal towers. As ubiquitous as cell phones are in suburban
households, it is almost impossible to
find a town within 75 miles of New
York where someone is not fighting
an antenna installation.
While the specifics of each feud
differ, the basic ingredients are the
same. One side advocates a project
purportedly for the betterment of the
entire community. The other side,
concerned primarily with protecting
quality of life and property values,
counters with any number of reasons
-- environmental issues, local government finances, zoning regulations, public safety.
The Greenfield Hill Village Improvement Society hired a hydrologist to study water runoff effects of
the expanded field. Residents for a
More Beautiful Port Washington,
which supports the nature trail,
hired engineers to disprove claims
that the bluffs could not support the
trail. The Chappaqua Alliance for the
Respect of the Environment used
naturalists to show the new school's
impact on wood frogs and box turtles.
"A Nimby concern can be very
legitimate," said Susan Pender,
president of Citizens for Responsible
School Planning, which helped kill a
proposal to build a middle school on
the grounds of the high school in
"The people who live
right around there were ultimately
proved right by the traffic study.
Their Nimby reasoning, which is you
can't do this because of the traffic,
was absolutely correct."
On the other hand, residents near
the 43-acre site ultimately selected
by the school board are still battling
what they see as an effort to despoil
valuable open space.
Pender and other critics of the original site are back circulating outraged petitions over plans for the
new middle school and the existing
one to operate as separate schools,
each serving grades five through
eight. They advocate that the town
use one middle school building for
grades five and six and another for
grades seven and eight.
Aggrieved parents say the board's
plan, which is overwhelmingly supported by educators, would be unfair
to residents whose children attend
one elementary school and then
would be split up after fourth grade
and sent to different middle
schools. Students at the other two
elementary schools in town would
graduate as a group to the same
From the outside, it looks like a
nasty family feud.
"People there care more about
that school district than almost anything, it is such an important part of
their community value structure,"
said Peter Liebowitz, of the White
Plains office of Allee, King, Rosen
and Fleming, a planning and environmental firm that represents the
homeowners opposed to the current
site for the school. "It's very distressing to watch. It was almost uncomfortable, like you were sitting in
someone's personal living room listening to them have an argument."
In Fairfield, the fight is also bitter.
As Gretchen Hauser sees it, the faded, rock-strewn ball field behind the
Timothy Dwight elementary school
is the perfect place to address the
town's growing need for recreational
space. Surrounded by mostly town-owned woodlands, it could easily be
expanded to accommodate adult regulation softball, Little League baseball and boys' and girls' soccer.
But to Al Merric and other members of the Greenfield Hill Village
Improvement Society, expanding the
field poses environmental hazards,
and its use by adult teams would
harm the quality of life in a neighborhood that contains Fairfield's most
"People move to this area because
of its rural character," Mr. Merric,
the group's president, said. "It is
extremely important to us that we
preserve the character." Mr. Merric
said that adult teams would increase
traffic and noise.
Mr. Merric's group has filed a
lawsuit challenging a wetlands permit granted by the town conservation commission and may also sue to
fight a variance for the project
granted last week by the planning
and zoning commission. "They feel
we are just taking a not-in-our-own-backyard attitude," Mr. Merric said.
"But really we would do anything for
Ms. Hauser, a member of the
town's recreation board who plays
softball, thinks the opposition is ludicrous. She said other parts of town
carried the bulk of Fairfield's civic
burden, including most ball fields,
the garbage dump, the sewage treatment plant and the dog pound.
"You are talking about people
playing games," she said. "You are
talking about people having fun. You
are talking about your fellow neighbor, your town neighbor using the
We are asking for two
and half acres. They are talking
about their property values and their
children's inheritance being destroyed."
The emotional toll runs high. In
more traditional development fights,
like the effort by Mamaroneck, N.Y.,
to prevent the construction of a huge
Ikea furniture store in neighboring
New Rochelle, it is easy to demonize
the opposition -- a faceless corporate
entity. But for those in the more local
fights, often the opponent is someone
they may bump into at the grocery
and have to look in the eye.
In Port Washington, Daniel Donatelli, the president of the Highfield
Estates Civic Association, which opposes the nature trail, still goes out of
his way to praise the trail's main
advocate, Myron Blumenfeld, the
president of the beautification group,
for his work on other issues. Mr.
Donatelli also notes that his own
group has supported two other trail
segments and simply does not want
people walking on the bluffs.
The solution, experts say, is to
negotiate as much as possible, keeping residents well informed along the
way, and to remind individuals to
balance their needs against those of
the community at large. Planners
say fights are seen as inevitable.
"You can't put pen to paper without worrying what the community
reaction is going to be," said Mr.
Liebowitz, from the environmental
office in White Plains. "It's very
difficult to try to do something kind
of quantitatively objective or neutral
when the counterargument is emotional and heartfelt."