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April 16, 2000

Now It's 'Nothing in My Backyard'

FAIRFIELD, 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 headache.

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 Little League.

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 knots.

"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 charge-card-carrying children.

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 Chappaqua.

"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.

And Mrs. 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 middle school.

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 expensive homes.

"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 the children."

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 neighborhood.

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."

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