Overcoming the Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) Syndrome

This is a guest post by Dr. Lawrence Susskind, Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning at MIT. One of the founders of the field of environmental dispute resolution, he has been teaching at MIT and Harvard for 50 years.

Opposition to renewable energy facilities, particularly wind power, is often spoken about. Wind advocates were asked on National Public Radio how they might overcome such local opposition — dubbed the NIMBY syndrome — in the future. The spokesperson said, “We’ve got to get in there earlier and educate people”. Wrong! How arrogant! You think people are opposed because they don’t understand? No, they’re opposed because the “costs” and “impacts” ON THEM are likely to outweigh the likely benefits TO THEM. The only way to overcome the NIMBY syndrome, regardless of the type of facility, is to make sure that the overwhelming majority of people in the area believe that the benefits TO THEM if the facility is built will outweigh the costs and impacts THEY are likely to experience.

Why is this so hard to understand? Facility siting scholarship has been clear about this for almost forty years. (See O’Hare, Bacow and Sanderson, Facility Siting and Public Opposition, Wiley, 1983). More than twenty years ago, we figured out how to overcome the NIMBY Syndrome and crafted what we called The Facility Siting Credo (Lawrence Susskind, Negotiation Journal, Volume VI, Issue 4, October 1990, pp. 309-314). The Credo was tested nationally against the siting experience in a great many American cities (Howard Kunreuther, Kevin Fitzgerald, and Thomas Aarts, Risk Analysis, Volume 13, Number 3, 1993, pp. 301-318).

Every siting effort starts with a small percentage of people who favor whatever is being proposed, probably less than 10%. These are usually people likely to gain personally if the facility is built, maybe by selling their land directly to the facility developer). And, as Mike Elliott, a Professor at Georgia Tech demonstrated many years ago, an equally small percentage of people usually start out opposed. Typically, these are people likely to bear disproportionate costs — because they live right next to whatever is being proposed. While there are some people in every community who pay no attention to anything (maybe 10%), the vast majority — 60% – 65% — fall into a category called “Guardians”. It’s what this middle group does that leads to most facility siting controversies.

We know two things about Guardians (thanks to Professor Elliott). First, if they think a licensing or permitting decision is unfair, they will side with the opponents. And, second, they want to hear whatever the arguments are for and against a proposed facility “on their merits”. If believable information isn’t presented in an open forum where questions can be asked of experts and proponents in a problem-solving format, they will side with the opponents. NIMBYism occurs when these two facts about Guardians are ignored.

Let me get back to the wind energy spokesperson on NPR. If proponents put out one-sided information to help “sell” citizens on the need for new renewable energy facilities, or try to convince them that there won’t be any adverse impacts, that’s sure to backfire. The Facility Siting Credo indicates how to avoid these and other mistakes, but I’m just going to emphasize the three most important principles in the Credo (and that are, for the most part, ignored in most facility siting disputes in the United States because proponents are typically way overconfident).

  • Engage in joint fact finding, not one-sided “educational” efforts.
  • Let all the key stakeholders choose a mediator to help manage a consensus building process.
  • Promise to compensate potential “losers” and hold any adversely affected neighborhood harmless.

Most environmental impact assessments are prepared after proponents have committed to build a facility. So, whatever data or forecasts are generated tend to be discounted by opponents as nothing but propaganda on behalf of decisions that have already been made. This is exactly the kind of thing that causes Guardians to side with the opponents. The Cape Wind Project in Massachusetts (the first off-shore wind farm in the United States) was caught up in what must have been the most elaborate regulatory review process in energy facility siting history in the United States – leading to the stalling of the project. Whatever evidence was presented by proponents was then countered by opponents. Everyone had made up their minds long before studies of the likely impacts of the facility became available. By the time the formal regulatory reviews took place, it was impossible to get all the parties in the same room for a civil conversation. Maine, however, has taken a different tack. The state has pre-reviewed all possible off-shore wind sites and noted publically those that seem to make the most sense in technical, economic and aesthetic terms. We’ll see whether private companies proposing to build in one of these pre-designated and pre-reviewed areas face the same opposition as Cape Wind. Joint fact finding regarding the likely benefits, impacts and costs of a proposed facility tends to be a lot easier if they take place before a specific site has been selected.

Most public involvement in government decisions in the United States is a joke. Hearings and so-called town meetings offer trivial opportunities for opponents and proponents to make short statements that won’t convince anyone of anything. They are all for show. The real battle takes place in the media and behind the scenes as each group does its best to lobby the elected and appointed officials involved.

Only an extended public dialogue, when questions can still be asked and answered before the Guardians have taken sides, is likely to lead to believable analyses of the merits and demerits of each proposed technology, location, design, or mitigation strategy. We know how to do this, but it requires that some of the money that will inevitably be spent on lawyers and litigation be used to pay professional mediators to facilitate authentic problem-solving or consensus building efforts. This is not about public relations (which is what the wind spokesperson meant by “education”). Rather, it’s about public learning through joint inquiry facilitated by a professional neutral. Most people don’t even realize that such a thing is possible! Not everyone needs to be involved. Mediators know how to prepare conflict assessments that can bring the right stakeholders to the table, to work on a jointly crafted agenda, with a range of expert advisors to help them. Such public inquiries can now be made entirely transparent on the web.

Now we get to the third principle at the heart of the Facility Siting Credo. Professor Howard Raiffa and others have written about this extensively. Unless you “hold potential losers harmless” they will oppose anything that is likely to hurt them. If you want to build a new facility in a particular location, there is no question that a small number of people living adjacent to the site will be opposed. Telling them that the “gains” to everyone else outweigh whatever “losses” they might experience — so they should support the project — is crazy. It’s not rational. And, as Professor O’Hare noted years ago, it is easy for that small number of people to find each other. And, they have a substantial incentive to try to block the facility. On the other hand, all the potential gainers (who could number in the millions if we are talking about switching from fossil fuels to clean energy) are usually unaware of the rather small gains they might realize over the long haul. They don’t have an incentive to organize themselves.

If the gains to the gainers far outweigh the losses to the losers, that’s not going to stop the small number of potential losers from trying to block a facility. And, since regulators and public officials don’t employ the Facility Siting Credo, they play into the hands of that small group who can easily recruit Guardians by complaining that decisions have been made without them and no one is doing anything to compensate the losers. Instead of 10% opposed, the opposition grows to more than 50%, and public officials have no choice but to fight the project.

Compensation to potential losers is not as tricky as it might seem. Most people haven’t thought about the difference between compensation (something good) and a bribe (something bad). Also, compensation doesn’t have to take the form of financial payments. A facility developer could promise to remove something that has for a long-time been a problem — like cleaning up a contaminated site somewhere else in the area if they are allowed to build their new facility.

A bribe is an illegal payment which people would be embarrassed to have made public. But compensation, awarded based on clear principles that ensure that everyone in the same category is treated equally, is not a bribe. Community benefit agreements seek to ensure that everyone in a community will benefit when a new facility of some kind is built. Some of the gains to the gainers (especially proponents who stand to make a profit) are, in effect, taxed (before they go to the gainers) and used to ensure that the small number of opponents who really stand to lose will be made whole. Some gains are also used to compensate neighborhoods or communities who experience real losses so that everyone else in the city or region can benefit. Compensation payments, or compensatory measures to eliminate a problem in the area, ensure that all those who bear disproportionate costs (even small ones) realize some tangible benefit over and above the general benefits that all the gainers will get if a facility is built. Construction jobs, for example, ought to be held for those adversely affected. Property tax abatements (or at least property tax insurance) should be offered to those who live near a new facility. This will hold them harmless against any property value losses caused by the new facility. The key is to ensure that potential losers are fully compensated. This will lead the Guardians to side with the proponents and NIMBYism will melt away.

If there is no way to tax the gainers, and capture some of the benefits to compensate the losers, then the proposed facility is probably a mistake — it’s either in the wrong location, using the wrong technology or being proposed at the wrong time.

Now, there are some opponents who just don’t care what they are offered or what their neighborhood is offered (and, again, I’m not just talking about money). They oppose a new facility for ideological reasons or because they just don’t want things to change. In real life, when the Facility Siting Credo is followed, the folks in this category (ideological opponents) are a very small minority (fewer than 5% of the total population of a community or region). Elected and appointed officials (and courts) who see that every effort has been made to use some gains to compensate losers and make the host community whole (through an open problem-solving conversation managed by a professional mediator) are not likely to block what 95% of the community supports. So, the trick is to get the Guardians to side with the proponents.

Please, no more whining about NIMBY. Just adopt the Facility Siting Credo and run the process the right way.

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