The NIMBY War Cry

Americans are rallying to stop development

A year-long battle between Wal-Mart and a small-town mayor has been playing out in the pages of the Lincoln Journal-Star. The retail giant and Colleen Seng, mayor of Lincoln, Neb., first sharpened their swords when Wal-Mart announced its intentions to open a third Lincoln store in a rapidly growing neighborhood on the east side of town. Seng fired back publicly with unexpected vehemence: “You are too big and too invasive for this particular neighborhood.” (I’m paraphrasing.) “Besides, I prefer Target.” (I’m paraphrasing here, too, but you get my drift.) Seng made no secret of playing favorites. In a move that surprised even the city council, she managed through some political maneuverings to downsize the development area, making it too small for Wal-Mart’s minimum requirements. But for Target, it was just right.

The neighborhood Wal-Mart still pines after is one that borders mine. Hence, I’ve monitored the coverage closely, with both personal and professional interest. There are no plans in the works for the new Wal-Mart. There are also no plans for Target. Another interested group—the neighborhood’s residents—joined the fight, and have raised such a ruckus that all development plans have been put on hold. From where I sit, the neighbors’ cries have sounded a lot like “NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard)!”

Certainly, the NIMBY war cry is being heard in more than my town. The 2006 Saint Index, which is released by Boston-based The Saint Consulting Group and which analyzes attitudes toward real estate development, found that twice as many Americans actively oppose development as support it. No surprise, Wal-Mart was mentioned more than once. Here are the results most relevant to retail:

73% of Americans oppose new development in their communities;

70% of Americans would use taxes to keep land undeveloped;

Opposition to Wal-Mart is more prevalent, as 68% are opposed to Wal-Mart, up from 63% last year;

Home improvement centers are opposed by 56% of Americans, up from 55% in 2005, and 55% oppose department stores, up from 53% in 2005; and

71% support state laws that halt the use of eminent domain for private development.

Not every retail development sector is encountering increased opposition. Grocery stores and large shopping centers actually gained a little favor with the public. While 33% of Americans opposed grocery stores in 2005, just 25% still opposed them in 2006. And opposition to large shopping centers dropped from 62% in 2005 to 57% in 2006.

The Saint Index pinpoints trends that can’t be ignored. With additional data that revealed growing resistance among Americans toward any political candidate who supports building projects, clearly the populace is looking for ways to stop development. One answer for retailers and developers looking to grow, said Saint Consulting Group president Patrick Fox, is to “start outreach early, and mount aggressive campaigns to educate and organize the communities in which they propose to operate.” I agree—but only to a point. That has gotten Wal-Mart nowhere in Lincoln.

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