Opinion Columns & Blogs

Taking ‘Not in My Backyard’ to the extreme

The other columnist in the family put down the paper after reading about the doomed rehab center in the Carrizo Plain and noted that county planners said they didn’t want to put the shelter “in the middle of nowhere.”

“They wouldn’t want it in the middle of somewhere, either,” Gayle pointed out.

And I thought, not for the first time, “I married well.” Sharp woman. She has her finger on the pulse of the (gated) community.

NIMBY — Not In My Backyard — can extend even to places where there is nothing but backyard, like the Carrizo Plain.

A group called the Serengeti Corporation had proposed a 100-bed rehab facility on 15 acres of the vast plain. The group envisioned entertainers, athletes and others who have run afoul of booze and drugs drying out in the great outdoors.

My immediate reaction, for some reason, was a vision of Charlie Sheen howling back at the coyotes. But Serengeti Corp. was serious. They thought this was the perfect place for damaged people to get their respective acts together.

However, county planners didn’t want it there, and the Planning Commission shot it down. The planners’ demurral seemed well-founded enough: concerns about water and safety, for example.

But there was also that NIMBY thing going on. I especially enjoyed this rationale for rejecting the proposal: It is out of character with the neighborhood.

What neighborhood? What character?

Perhaps planners heard from some angry blunt-nosed leopard lizards or kangaroo rats who recoiled at the thought of Mark McGwire or Amy Winehouse wandering around their digs.

Well, they all have a point, and that is what makes this mini-dispute so interesting. It is a microcosm of the tensions that define county government — the philosophical back and forth between what an individual can do with his or her property, and what the larger community will accept.

Pretty much everyone agrees that you should not be allowed to store nuclear waste in your yard, and nobody would try it (except for the random nuclear power plant, but that’s a different column).

However, the calls on what should or should not be allowed are not usually that simple.

And so we have governments fighting with people over everything from how big their room addition can be to what materials they can use in the driveway.

In my long, bi-coastal career, I have seen this taken to absurdity — one local government, for example, literally dictating which shade of beige a homeowner should use to make his house fit in with the backdrop.

I’m old enough to remember when this sort of thing was considered government intrusion into things that were not the government’s business. I still recall the first time I witnessed it — 30 years ago at a planning commission meeting up north when commissioners told some guy how high to build his backyard fence and what kind of wood to use.

But there is also the question of what is good for the community at large. Should a guy be allowed to paint his house in zebra stripes?

Some folks consider government restrictions the product of control freaks whose egos are tied up in constraining others. Some say restrictions keep selfish landowners from letting things on their property get out of hand. Still others believe planners are empire builders, or that county codes are tools of special interests.

It all makes for great theater, as it has done in the Carrizo Plain, and I personally enjoy the show, which is lucky, since that’s my beat on this newspaper.

What I don’t enjoy so much is when NIMBY pops up to stop something the powerless people in a community need. I’ve seen my share of that as well.

In Massachusetts, I saw neighbors stop a battered women’s shelter from coming to town because they feared angry husbands would find out where it was located and come knocking on their doors by mistake.

In Northern California, I saw neighbors try to stop a home for children with Down syndrome because they feared those kids would frighten their kids.

There are plenty of other examples. It almost seems to be part of human nature to try to keep things frozen the way they are and to stop the future from arriving. That’s sad, and almost poignant.

But we will see plenty more of that, and not just in the Carrizo Plain, because this is a county that tries to control what will happen.

So grab your popcorn and tune in to the next tension-packed conflict between those who want the status quo and those who want to change it.

Meanwhile, the lizards and coyotes up there in Carrizo’s middle of nowhere can breathe easy.

Reach Bob Cuddy at bcuddy@thetribunenews.com or 781-7909.