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Globe Editorial

NIMBYism: An objection that's full of manure

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December 7, 2010

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In almost any Massachusetts town, it might be possible to find 10 people who favor the removal of all electrical lines, say, or a ban on all development. For that reason, a state law allowing any 10 citizens to object to wetlands permits can be an open invitation to NIMBY extremists of all stripes — as is disappointingly evident from a land-use controversy in Westwood.

As Monday’s Globe reported, Westwood resident Polly Kornblith’s intention was to build a 22-stall horse barn out of sight from her street, not the type of commercial and residential developments that usually provoke the ire of neighbors. The state Department of Environmental Protection initially approved the project but reversed itself after a group of nearby residents — notably, not Kornblith’s immediate neighbors — challenged the wetlands permit. She is appealing the decision, but it’s not clear whether any compromise is possible: Even if she adjusted her plans, one opponent told the Globe, “it’s clear that maybe nothing is appropriate here at all.’’

That may be a tip-off that this dispute isn’t entirely about whether horse manure will pollute nearby wetlands, the official grounds for the challenge; neighbors have also expressed concerns about odors, noise, traffic, and the possibility that horses might use town conservation lands. The danger of the current law is that wetlands issues can become excuses for neighbors — or people who aren’t even neighbors — to raise nagging objections to any changes that don’t suit them.

The 10-citizen provision’s supporters, which in the past have included this page, argue that neither the immediate neighbors nor local officials can always be relied on to object to environmental hazards. On the downside, the law doesn’t just encourage NIMBYism; it allows people who won’t be directly affected by a project to put up obstacles to it.