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A history lesson in NIMBY

Peter Teichner Berkeley
Wednesday February 13, 2002



Re: Developer Patrick Kennedy’s letter of Feb. 5, in which he invokes the NIMBY slur and disdains the Berkeley Party, Howie Muir and Carrie Olson. 


Since the NIMBY expression has often been invoked against our neighborhood near the proposed development for 2700 San Pablo Ave. other Berkeley neighborhoods facing inappropriate development, it might be helpful to be aware of its history.  

The expression of “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY) had been a rallying cry for communities to defend themselves against the real peril of corporations dumping toxic contaminants into their communities.  

Typically these communities were blue collar, economically depressed and often predominantly minority. Starting around 1978, due to an alarming increase in miscarriages, birth defects and other significant health effects, the neighborhood of Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y. came to realize that it was being exposed to the toxic waste of Hooker Chemical Co. (which had sold the land to the local Board of Education for $1 and a release from liability). The NIMBY defense appears to have originated with the Love Canal Homeowners Association started by Lois Gibbs. She believed that “people fighting for their own backyard is what democracy is about.” The petro-chemical industry, intent on locating oil, chemical and hazardous waste facilities in targeted communities, cleverly turned the acronym of NIMBY into a pejorative, portraying it as selfish protectionism. The grassroots environmental justice movement then changed their rallying cry to NIAMBY-Not In Anyone’s Backyard. 

I believe that most Berkeley residents desire the predominantly low-rise neighborhoods, to which they are accustomed, as well as a continuity of that scale over a period of time relative to their lives. This in large part is what gives Berkeley its appeal. There is no shame in attempting to preserve our existing quality of life while also attempting to accommodate and protect those who may be less fortunate in our society.  

These are not mutually exclusive endeavors and Berkeley preservationists recognize this. 

While self-proclaimed man-of-the-people Piedmont resident Patrick Kennedy now uses “NIMBY” in attempting to belittle and manipulate Berkeley neighborhoods into bowing to oversized development, the obvious irony should be pointed out that Mr.Kennedy can be assured of never facing a similar struggle as a protected member of his Piedmont enclave.  

For some reason the concept of “smart growth” doesn’t apply to the major traffic corridors of Piedmont. 

At least one other irony presents itself around Mr. Kennedy’s association with the dread NIMBY term and the oil industry. His proposed residential/commercial development at 2700 San Pablo Avenue, as far as is known, still appears slated to go onto a contaminated piece of land as documented by an attachment to the deed and a 1998 report on the results of soil and water sampling. The former gas station is listed as a L.U.S.T. (Leaking Underground Storage Tank) site and although it was certified “closed”, i.e. cleaned up, there is reason to believe this certification was premature.  

In July 2000, The Environmental Working Group issued a report, which details a failure of state regulators to order cleanup or take other legally binding enforcement action on more than 90 percent of the thousands of underground fuel storage tanks known to be leaking toxic chemicals into water and soil throughout the state. It further states that ... “‘closed’ cases don’t necessarily indicate cleanup or action to stop ongoing pollution. In the late 1990s, the state Water Resources Control Board fast-tracked sweetheart settlements for leaking tank sites, closing many cases without adequate review, cleanup, containment, or penalties for the responsible parties.” 2700 San Pablo may be one such example. 



Peter Teichner