Opinion: Is NIMBYism good for the environment and America? 

Capital Gazette: Commentary, April 12, 2024

By: Gerald Winegrad, Capital Gazette columist

The Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) syndrome, used to block infrastructure projects, is an extremely powerful force in our democracy.

Some examples of projects that have been opposed by NIMBYs include affordable housing units, trailer parks, high-speed rail lines, daycare facilities, schools and bike lanes. When I was a senator, a fellow environmental leader was trying to block the proposed Lighthouse homeless shelter on West Street.

Two recent provocative columns detail the abuse of laws enacted to assure public input into projects that could affect the environment. The disparate sources led to this column.

Last November, Business Insider published “Make America Build Again: My Totally Radical, Completely Sure-Fire Plan to Blanket the Country with Affordable Homes and Clean Energy and Mass Transit — Fast.” This was from a New York City-based multinational financial publication.

The other article was from the spring 2024 magazine of the Sierra Club: “Against The Wind: Climate-Science Deniers, Right-Wing Think Tanks, and Fossil Fuel Shills Are Plotting Against the Clean Energy Transition — Inside the Conspiracy To Take Down Wind And Solar Power.”

Without a doubt, the requirements of our bedrock environmental laws are critically important, as is the public scrutiny to ensure these prescriptive environmental protection measures are properly applied and enforced. But the columns document how these laws are being used to prevent the development of needed infrastructure. Citizens have learned how to weaponize these laws using the environment to block projects near them.

The author of the first article cites the blockades of needed projects: “We can’t let local residents (most of them wealthy and white) block projects that give other people (most of them poor and people of color) stuff like affordable housing.”

He also writes that instead of “richy-rich neighbors” stopping new wind turbines using a few bird and bat deaths as an excuse, wind power operators should mitigate the mortality. He suggests they work to reduce the global carnage of outdoor feral and pet cats killing as many as four billion birds and 22 billion small mammals every year.

The Sierra column adds fuel to this. The Sierra author uncovers an effort by climate-science deniers and fossil-energy shills using social media manipulation to intensify opposition to proposed wind and solar installations. These tricksters adeptly exploit tensions about how and where to build clean wind and solar energy projects and their needed transmission lines.

Even when industry is not aiding NIMBYism against a project, locals can do very well on their own. Maryland law and its new Climate Pathway Plan require in-state solar and wind electrical generation to increase fivefold by 2031, with solar accounting for 33% of in-state generation. All electricity used in Maryland must be generated by renewable sources by 2035. Solar is now at 5% and wind at 1.4%. The new strategy must achieve net zero emissions by 2045.

Making these goals almost impossible are organized efforts to block cost-effective solar and wind ground installations. NIMBYs have gained enactment by many counties, including Anne Arundel, of bans or stringent restrictions blocking solar panels on farmland or other open lands.

Wind energy expansion has experienced blockades as just three Maryland projects with 56 turbines operate currently. After 13 years of planning for 17 new turbines on an old coal strip mine site at Dan’s Mountain, NIMBYs fought hard and blocked the project. Despite the 2013 Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act pushing planned wind turbines into the ocean and offering $1.7 billion in subsidies, there are no Maryland offshore wind turbines.

Nationally, the New Mexico desert SunZia solar project began construction recently after 17 years of review by federal, state and local regulators despite some vigorous local opposition including by so-called environmentalists. The Obama and Biden administrations pushed for this project to help meet clean energy goals to fight climate change.

The project’s 900 wind turbines will produce electricity for three million households in Arizona and California delivered through 550 miles of transmission lines. The third-largest solar operation in the Western Hemisphere could produce three times the power of the Hoover Dam, and two times that of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant, Maryland’s largest power generator.

Despite years of rigorous review to resolve environmental issues, the $8.8 billion project wound up in court as local native tribes sued in January to block the transmission line near their lands. Such battles over solar and wind projects create major obstacles to meeting clean energy goals and the existential climate crises.

In New York, climate denier Marc Morano has posed as a save-the-whales activist to halt offshore wind projects, deceiving local activists to rally around whale strandings falsely linked to wind turbines. In Ohio, a former coal industry attorney organized opposition against a Lake Erie wind farm.

According to the Sierra column: “For more than a decade, climate deniers and fossil fuel interests have quietly cultivated ties with local activists, equipping them with talking points, legal muscle, model ordinances, and other tools to try to subvert renewable energy adoption. … Fossil fuel ideologues sowed disinformation in an attempt to twist public opinion against wind and solar projects — all in an attempt to prolong the fossil fuel era.”

For 15 years (2002-2017), opponents fought the Cape Wind 130 ocean turbine project. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and his uncle, Teddy, were dominant in the fight as turbines were 16 miles from the Nantucket Kennedy compound.

The Kennedys enlisted many pals despite Greenpeace and a host of other environmental groups supporting the project. Fossil fuel billionaire William Koch joined the Kennedys, donating $1.5 million and sending lobbyists to kill the project. In a classic wealthy NIMBY fight, they won when the project died.

Locally, since 2013 I have led in harnessing the power of NIMBYism to raise $250,000 in blocking the development of the Crystal Spring 176-acre site. Against all odds, we succeeded in defeating plans for an enormous, sprawling project with more than 500 housing units, a shopping center and a hotel.

The project was shrunk to a senior-only living center clustered closest to Forest Drive. All our demands were met, and plans call for eliminating all future development and improving traffic flows, ensuring the 124 acres of forest would be kept at 124 acres in perpetuity including replanted forest, and improving stormwater runoff from existing conditions.

The $250 million project’s construction will employ 1,500, many of them minorities. Property taxes will yield $2.2 million annually.

But on Feb. 16, a small group of NIMBYs filed suit for the third time appealing the Circuit Court’s approval of the project, likely blocking construction for another seven months. This means the 252 seniors who have deposited more than $11 million awaiting a unit, will have to wait longer to occupy one of the 164 apartments or cottages they want to live in.

All of our leadership team thought we had achieved a model for sustainable development, but NIMBY power thrives.

Gerald Winegrad represented the greater Annapolis area as a Democrat in the Maryland House of Delegates and Senate for 16 years. Contact him at gwwabc@comcast.net.

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