Attack of the Fifty-Foot NIMBY's

The origin of the NIMBY ("not in my back yard") is honorable. People would buy a home, planning to live and raise children in reasonable safety, when some agency of government decides to locate a halfway house or nuclear power plant nearby. When that happens, the homeowners' property value is reduced, so much so that they cannot even get their investment out and relocate to a safer place. Local residents needed to band together to fight the intrusion that would take from their assets and distribute the benefit among large numbers of other people.

Unfortunately, it didn't stop there. Some clever soul figured out that if a small group of people could fight the majority to prevent the small group's assets from being eroded, they could use the same tactics to allow a small group to gain at the expense of the majority. At this point, NIMBY-ism stops being a noble effort and starts being a scam on a par with the guys who transfer fractions of a cent from everybody else's bank accounts into their own, or the recently discovered traders who were making illegal deals with mutual-fund managers to take a dollar or two from every shareholder and putting hundreds of thousands into their own pocket.

How NIMBY-Ism Works

Your first thought might be that it is impossible for a minority to take advantage legally of the vast majority of their neighbors. But there are two tricks they use:

  1. Publicly announced meetings are always dominated by those who have a lot to gain. The majority, each of whom have just a little to lose, don't find it worth their time and effort to oppose the matter. Public officials perceive that the community is of one mind; it is, but the true consensus is exactly the opposite of what they see at the meetings.

  2. Although the true motivation is always to increase the property values or well-being of a small group at the expense of the community, the NIMBY's never phrase it as such. Rather, it is frequently couched as a "safety" issue. It is hard for officials to take a stand against "safety."

I recently heard a story that illustrates the point; it was told by Sharon Codd at the memorial for her husband, Ted, the inventor of the relational data model. Ted didn't win the Turing award for this idea, but you'll have to admit it was a pretty clever trick in its own right. The Codds lived up in the hills of San Jose, on a long street that starts in the "flats" and winds up into the hills. They discovered that real-estate agents were using the same formula for pricing all homes along the street. That's not good for the Codds and their immediate neighbors, because houses in the hills should be worth more than houses in the valley. So Ted got the idea that they should get another name for the portion of their street that is in the hills. The theory, probably correct, was that the new street would have higher property values than the old.

But you can't just go to the City Council and ask them to rename your street so you can have an increase in property values. So Ted Codd came up with the following idea: make up a story that it would be safer if their street had a different name. Now stop and think. How could a name change be argued to increase safety? Ted had an answer. The theory was that if there were a fire in one of the houses on the hill, the Fire Department would naturally start at the most densely populated part of the street --- the part in the flats --- and look for the house number. By the time they went up the hill, the house would have burned down.

Now, never mind that the 911 call center can tell where your house is located when you make the call, and they can so inform the Police or Fire Department. Never mind that if you pull a fire-alarm box, it tells the Fire Department where it is located. That argument was enough to bamboozle the City Council, none of whose members wanted to make a gratuitous vote against "safety" anyway. The Codds and their neighbors got the name change.

Interestingly, this example seems especially benign. Unlike another example I'll talk about, it isn't even clear who paid for the Codds' windfall. Possibly it was the people living in the flats, whose property values sunk even further. Possibly it was later buyers of the homes on the hill, who wound up paying more than they would have otherwise. But most people were unaffected by the name change.

My Battle Against NIMBY-Ism

Now that I'm retired and have a little time on my hands, I decided to experiment with fighting a particular example of NIMBY-ism. Junipero Serra Blvd. is an arterial road just to the west of Stanford Campus. It has a 35-mile-per hour speed limit next to the campus, just as it does as it winds north, eventually becoming Alameda de las Pulgas through Menlo Park and other towns to the north. There are 18 houses that front on the street, and the residents decided to band together and complain to the county that the road was "unsafe" at 35 MPH.

I should comment that 35 is a very normal and appropriate speed for a road that is there to transport people long distances. We're not talking about a residential street whose sole purpose is to get people from their houses to major arteries like Serra Blvd. However, the traffic makes noise, which would be reduced if cars were, say, forced to go 25 MPH instead of 35, and apparently the residents of the 18 houses find it hard to get out of their driveways and into traffic. So it would benefit them if everyone else in the world had to slow down going past their houses.

I found out about a "public meeting" to discuss the proposed changes, and, being a retired dude with nothing to do, I decide to show up. The first thing I notice is that I am the only one at the meeting who was neither a county official nor a resident of one of the 18 houses whose owners stand to benefit (we had to mark our homes on a map). Coincidence? I don't think so. The 18 NIMBY's stand to gain a property-value windfall of $100K, at least. The county guys have to be there; it's their job (which also depends on there being enough projects in Santa Clara County to justify their existence). But what's the economic advantage to the residents of the other 700 or so houses on the campus? If they drive on the affected road once a week, and they are slowed down by 30 seconds, it would be decades before they recover the time wasted attending one of these meetings. That's why the NIMBY's always win. They steal a little from large numbers of people --- sufficiently little that it is in no one's individual advantage to fight back, although collectively the theft is huge.

So I'm sitting there waiting for the meeting to begin, and a woman carrying an infant sits down. I introduce myself and start a conversation to test the waters. She's one of the NIMBY's of course; the county guys don't have infants with them. I ask her the key question: does she think it is fair, having bought her house cheaply, to try to raise the value at the expense of large numbers of people. She says that it was OK before she had a baby, but now that she has a baby, she needs to cross the road, and it is not safe. I wanted to ask her why she doesn't just get into her giant SUV and drive across the road. I wanted to ask her why she needs to cross the street, since there is nothing but vacant hills on the other side, but I don't. Instead, I comment that she must have known about what causes babies and anticipated that she might have one, when she bought the house. I ask her whether she feels entitled to hinder everyone else rather than moving to a house more appropriate to her changed circumstances. She ignores me and starts nursing her baby.

The meeting starts, and the county guys tell us that they did a survey, and there are 160 cars a day that traverse the half-mile in question going more than 65 miles an hour (it's a 35 MPH zone, remember). I point out that when I was younger, I used to jog along this strip almost every day. I must have gone through it 3000 times. At 5 minutes per trip, I should have met one of these high-speed cars at least 2000 times. But I don't remember ever seeing one going that fast. And I figure I'd remember, because 65 MPH is freeway speed. Try to imagine what it would feel like standing or jogging at the edge of a freeway with cars whizzing by. I think that I would remember it if it happened to me. I ask the county guys whether it is possible that the survey was flawed or that interested parties could have tampered with the detection mechanism. At this point, a big guy gets out of his chair and gets in my face. "We already considered this" he says. End of discussion.

I Ask the Local Homeowners Association for Help

It turns out the meeting wasn't really to discuss whether to create obstacles to traffic, but only to discuss the details of what nuisances to place in the road. So I proposed to the local organization of Stanford campus residents that they take a poll of the entire campus to see whether there was majority support for impeding traffic on Serra Blvd. Unfortunately, the board of this organization, called SCRL, is like the board of any condo or coop. It is made up of people with nothing better to do and who enjoy the "power" that the position gives them.

I suggested that the democratic thing to do would be to poll the campus residents. Or better, hire a professional pollster to measure campus sentiment. It turns out that of the 18 houses on Serra Blvd., two are on the SCRL board. No surprise --- they tell me that there are many ways to measure campus sentiment, and there is no need for a vote or poll. Hmmm... anybody have a guess as to what they have in mind?

More NIMBY-Ism

The Serra Blvd. heist is far from unique. You probably have many examples from your own town. Just a few months ago, in Palo Alto, residents near downtown put up a vicious collection of roadblocks to get cars off their streets. The folly was exposed when a thief escaped because the police chasing him were unable to figure out how to navigate through the warren of closed streets. In other areas of Palo Alto, residents compete with one another to get the most extreme form of speed-bump put in front of their house, to force traffic onto their neighbors' streets. You probably have stories just as asinine from your own town.

What Needs to Be Done

The only way to combat the bad form of NIMBY-ism is to establish statewide groundrules for making changes to road use. Just like building projects require an "environmental survey" to see if they would harm any endangered species, any obstacles placed in the road should first be subject to a survey assessing the impact on people. Surely the effect on drivers should be at least as important as the effect on spotted owls or tiger salamanders (those are both Stanford-specific references, but substitute any endangered species here). To combat the tendencies of the few potential winners to bother with the process while each of the many losers don't bother to speak out, professional polling standards need to be applied, so the result is truly representative of how the entire affected population feels.

It is a little tricky to distinguish in legal language the two different kinds of NIMBY-ism: the good (where the public is trying to steal from a few) and the bad (where a few are trying to steal from the public). However, a law that puts the burden of proof on those advocating change from the preexisting condition will do the job.