Friday Night Lights and the Power of NIMBYs

Posted on 11/1/10

I attended a high school football game last weekend in my small New England community, where playing sports is an important part of growing up, and local rivalries among the neighboring towns is serious business.

Sadly, the game was on Saturday afternoon and not, as is tradition in 99% of America, on Friday night under the lights. It was a beautiful autumn afternoon and the local boys prevailed in front of an enthusiastic crowd. But somehow the vibe was a little off…it just didn’t seem like a high school game.

Why play on Saturday? Because a handful of well-heeled and activist folks in the neighborhood of the school have protested the noise, the glow, the litter and the feared drop in property values the lights would bring. A classic NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) response: You can build it, just don’t build it near me.

On the pro-lights side is the Board of Education, the junior sports leagues and most of the community. The neighborhood concerns – all legitimate – have been addressed to a reasonable level with high tech lighting, zoned sound systems, rigid limits on game times, and donated funding to cover the additional costs. Kids need a place to play, and it gets dark early in the autumn months.

It got me thinking about the power of NIMBYs who, along with their blunt instrument of force – the plaintiff’s bar – have evolved their tactics over the years. It now seems less about conducting a thoughtful, transparent, open community debate between two reasonable parties, and more about “lawyering up” and using every possible loophole to get the zoning and planning commissions to protect the few.

NIMBYism can benefit, or hurt, entire communities, depending on where you live and what type of development is contemplated. (Thanks for thinking of us, but perhaps that maximum security prison would work better someplace else). But lately, it seems the principles of NIMBYism are too often applied to projects that might benefit the community at large. Hospital expansion. Low income housing. Lights on the field so more kids can play ball.

It’s a fine line between a good cause and a cause that’s just good for a few. But the best way to address these issues is head on, as a community, using the democratic process to debate the merits and reach a reasonable compromise. Unfortunately, too often reasonableness is overpowered by legal maneuvering that cost a fortune, clogs up the courts and creates bitterly divided communities. And, ultimately, leads to a very dysfunctional government.