One of the recurring problems hampering Maine’s economic development over the years has been a pervasive hostility of locals towards any kind of project that has even the slightest potential to negatively affect them directly. This provincial, short-sighted attitude – commonly referred to as NIMBYism, for Not In My Backyard – has derailed projects large and small across the state for decades.

Although those opposed to a certain project often attempt to frame their arguments with more noble intentions, the truth of the matter is that they simply oppose any change occurring close to their own neighborhood. This fear of change frequently shuts down potential improvements that would have benefited the state or region as a whole, thanks to local, and vocal, opposition that has only its own interests at heart

It’s not even that NIMBYs disagree about whether a particular project would, in fact, benefit Maine as a whole; it’s often simply that they don’t want the project too close to their own homes. Take, for instance, affordable housing: Liberals generally agree that more of it is needed. When push comes to shove, however, they don’t want it anywhere near their own homes.

In Cape Elizabeth, where Joe Biden received more than 75 percent of the vote, the question of where to build new affordable housing has been incredibly divisive. Similarly, in Portland, where Biden got around 80 percent of the vote, the city has struggled to find a location for a new homeless shelter. Even though most residents of these cities probably agree that more affordable housing and shelters are needed there, they don’t want to have to drive by them every day. In essence, they’re abandoning their supposed ideological principles because they may end up being personally inconvenient. It’s far easier to support a policy goal in the abstract than it is to support a particular solution that may not be entirely ideal.

It’s not just small projects that are threatened by NIMBYism, but large ones as well – especially utilities projects that could have helped the entire state. We’ve seen this with the repeated attempts to establish a site for offshore wind energy along the coast: With each proposal, local residents have rallied (successfully, thus far) to block it. The same thing happened to the attempt by Summit Natural Gas to build a new pipeline in Waldo and Knox counties. In both of those cases, these projects could well have provided net benefits to not only the state as a whole, but also even to the local areas where they would have been built and opposition was sharpest.

That various projects around the state are constantly being derailed by the NIMBYs causes a few problems. Opponents hardly ever truly do a detailed analysis of the potential benefits to the local area and the state: Instead, they offer kneejerk opposition because they’re afraid of any change. They refuse to listen to logic, instead playing on emotional arguments to scare people to their side. This approach to politics isn’t unique to development proposals, of course. We’ve seen it time and time again with various issues in this state.

Unfortunately, when one embraces this approach, it may be successful in the short run – but every time it succeeds it does more permanent damage to responsible governance and policymaking. If facts are abandoned every time it’s politically convenient for your side, it becomes increasingly difficult to find any common ground to solve problems. We can see the roots of today’s polarized politics in every single emotion-based argument against some development proposal or another.

People always say that they hate Congress, yet they love their congressman; they want to cut government spending, but they don’t want to eliminate programs that they personally rely on. Everyone always wants to solve a problem with an easy solution that won’t affect them personally. That’s perfectly understandable, but in the end, it means that you don’t really want a solution to the problem: To fix things we all need to make a few sacrifices.

We can’t have development without inconvenience, nor can we have growth. Real solutions, whether it’s to high taxes, climate change, economic dev or anything else, are never going to please everyone. Those who oppose development projects in their backyard are a metaphor for why our current political system is so dysfunctional. It’s long past time that we recognize that, and realize that in order to get things done, sacrifices are going to have to be made.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @jimfossel


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