THE NIMBY FACTOR : ‘Not in my back yard,’ they say, to everything from landfills to churches. Observers say this fight for open space is a trend just beginning.
The 1960s saw the emergence of the hippie; the ‘80s, the yuppie. But look for the “nimby” to become a name for the ‘90s. Nimby, an acronym for “not in my back yard,” is a label for people who fight to keep everything from landfills to churches from locating in their neighborhoods.
Although the nimby phenomenon has been growing steadily for at least a decade, the word is fairly new.
“Mostly I’ve heard it in the last 6 months or so,” said Terry Speth, secretary for the Los Angeles Board of Zoning Appeals. He and other local officials believe that nimby fights will increase in number and sophistication as vacant land grows more scarce and as residents are stirred to act by victories in other neighborhoods.
“Nimby is a term that people have started attaching to themselves,” said Dave Vannatta, who was a 20-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission before becoming land-use deputy to Supervisor Mike Antonovich. “They’re more sophisticated than before. People are doing their own traffic studies. New laws like the EIR laws have given them more power.” And Proposition U, the slow-growth initiative approved by voters in the city of Los Angeles in 1986, promises to provide residents with further ammunition.
“I’ve been surprised to learn that the whole phenomenon is up and down New York,” said Sherman Oaks attorney Benjamin Reznik, who has handled zoning cases for 10 years. “My reading in the general land-use field shows it cropping up all over. It’s national.”
Many of the nimby cases pit homeowners against projects that are blatantly undesirable--a toxic waste incinerator, for example, or a landfill. But others oppose projects that traditionally are fixtures in residential areas.
Why would anyone oppose a church, school or day-care center? Is the fight worth the toll on a family? What follows are the stories of three people who devoted themselves to halting such projects in the San Fernando Valley.
“I had never done anything like this,” said Karen Bernacki, and she doubts she would again.
Bernacki led an unsuccessful fight to stop a 45-child preschool from locating in her Arleta neighborhood. The effort took a year, she said, ending early in 1988, “and there were weeks I was on the phone 6 hours a day.”
The work included rallying neighbors to write letters and attend City Hall hearings, polling existing day-care centers to determine vacancy rates, talking to government officials, collecting signatures on petitions and lobbying residents who had signed petitions for the other side.
Bernacki works part time as a supermarket clerk. She is married, has 15- and 20-year-old sons, and describes herself as “the emotional one in the family.” It was frustrating, she said, to have neighbors call and ask the outcome of a hearing. “I’d think, ‘If you’re interested, why weren’t you there?’ ” Her sons and her husband, the owner of a pool maintenance business, occasionally urged her to drop the effort.
“The boys knew I was really involved and they saw me really upset,” she said. “At times, they’d see me frustrated on the phone and say, ‘Mom, why are you bothering? We’re not that close to it.’ I told them it was the principle of the thing.”
In February, the owners of Kids’ Korner Preschool won their fight for a conditional-use permit. The school is under construction on Nordhoff Street between Woodman Avenue and Osborne Street, around the corner from the Bernacki home on Dorrington Avenue. The neighborhood is made up of older homes on large lots. Many of the residents are retirees.
Bernacki said she opposed the preschool because there is adequate child care in the area and because the facility could open the door for more commercial enterprises in the neighborhood. The preschool’s owners dispute both contentions.
Rebecca Rickley, a therapist who, along with two teachers, is a partner in the venture, said the facility will have about 30 children--15 short of capacity--when it opens later this month. She predicted, however, that the 45-child limit will be reached quickly by advertising. Rickley said the preschool does not undermine the area’s residential character, pointing out that a small shopping center already exists across the street.
“Besides, there isn’t anything more residential than children,” she said.
Neither Rickley nor Bernacki was satisfied with the bureaucratic process--Rickley because the area councilman, Ernani Bernardi, opposed the preschool, and Bernacki because of the case’s surprise outcome.
Nimby cases in the city of Los Angeles typically go through four stages: an investigation and public hearing overseen by a Planning Department zoning administrator, a hearing before the Board of Zoning Appeals after one side contests the administrator’s decision, a hearing before the Planning and Environment Committee of the City Council, and a final vote before the full council.
“We thought we would win,” Bernacki said. “We had petitions with 70 names representing 50 homes. The councilman sided with us. The zoning administrator had sided with us. It didn’t seem fair.”
In December, 1987, the zoning administrator turned down the school’s application for a conditional-use permit on grounds that the facility would bring harmful increases in noise and traffic to the neighborhood. But the preschool took the case to the Board of Zoning Appeals and, in February, won on a 3-2 vote.
“The board has voted for churches and day-care centers in communities because they are community facilities,” said Speth, the board secretary.
Bernacki was upset that only four board members were on hand for the hearing and, when they split 2 to 2, the fifth member was permitted to break the tie by voting later.
“We should have taken an attorney with us,” she said. (The board’s vote was eventually affirmed by the full council.)
More than a year later, it still rankles her that one board member asked how the national child-care crisis could be solved if people like herself opposed new facilities. Bernacki said she is not indifferent to child-care needs, but insisted that there were more than 200 openings for children at 10 preschools in the Arleta area.
Meanwhile, she said, the quality of life in her neighborhood has declined with “one little intrusion after another.” She cited a nearby church that recently added a day-care center and a general worsening of congestion.
Although Bernacki lost, she said she is pleased to have become friends with several of her neighbors during the campaign. She also believes that her efforts helped to prompt the city to place limits on the preschool’s operation. For example, no more than 12 children may play outside at a time, and the operators must build a 6-foot block wall around the property.
Like Karen Bernacki, Tina Eick appeared to have a sizable edge going into a hearing before the Board of Zoning Appeals. Her opponent, Holy Trinity Romanian Orthodox Church, wanted to relocate from Eagle Rock to a 7.8-acre parcel overlooking Hansen Dam in the Shadow Hills area of Sunland. The church was turned down by a zoning administrator and had appealed.
Eick, land-use chairman of the Shadow Hills Property Owners Assn., was leading the fight against the relocation. She had more than 100 letters from residents who opposed the move. She had given board members a six-page analysis listing the potentially harmful impact of traffic and noise on the area’s equestrian life style.
But Eick said she figured that the church would win. In fact, keeping the church out of Shadow Hills wasn’t her main objective.
“You’re not going to stop all development,” she said. “When you try to do that, you get disillusioned. What you do is put conditions on development so that it’s somewhat acceptable.”
By the time it received final approval in July, the church was saddled with 19 conditions. Among the significant: 40% of the land must remain as open space for 99 years, the meeting room may not be rented to non-members and the church may not add a day-care center, school or retirement home to its facilities.
“Some of the conditions are extremely difficult for us,” said church spokesman Joe Oros. “We don’t think it’s right that the community can’t use the facilities.”
Eick has been land-use chairman of the 400-member homeowners group since 1979. She receives no pay and said she averages an hour a day, 7 days a week, on the job. She thinks that the time is well spent.
“The more you do it, the more you realize you’re having a positive effect,” she said. “You realize you have to live in the city of Los Angles and your kids do too.”
Eick and her husband, Bill, an attorney who manages an oil company, have three children. The family keeps horses, dogs, cats, ducks, chickens and pigeons. Houses in their area range from modern, ranch-style buildings to those made from stones in the 1920s and ‘30s.
“This is the most rural area of Shadow Hills,” she said. “We have a strong property owners group because people know if they lose this area, they’d have to move way out to live like this.”
Over the years, she has developed guidelines for winning at City Hall while remaining sane:
* Always divide the work with others. “You can’t do it by yourself or you destroy your family.”
* At hearings, know the law and present your case calmly. “Oftentimes, people get up there and they emote. Council officials don’t want to hear that. They want to hear the laws.”
* Take a lawyer if at all possible. “That way they know you’re serious.”
* Take setbacks gracefully. “Don’t form resentments; it will hurt you later on.”
Eick said her biggest victory came in a 5-year fight to keep an industrial park out of the Big Tujunga Wash. “By the time I was done, I got to know every comma and semicolon of the flood data, the grading laws, everything.”
She does not like the word nimby .
“ ‘Not in my back yard’ gives you a bad reputation,” she said. “It sounds like you’re against everything.”
Eick views the Romanian church case as a victory because the church will be a “palatable neighbor.”
“They should hang a sign at the city limits, ‘No Vacancy,’ ” she said. “The city infrastructure can’t handle any more development.”
She is heartened that local governments and courts increasingly provide laws and legal interpretations that help residents fight various projects.
And, like Karen Bernacki, Eick said friendships with neighbors have been an unexpected benefit of her efforts.
“Originally, we didn’t deal with each other on a social level at all,” she said. “Then slowly you learn they are wonderful people with the same values as you. Even if we don’t admit it, we’re tree huggers.”
Steve Kasten was one of the leaders in a successful fight to stop the move to Calabasas of private Oakwood School, which teaches kindergarten through 12th-grade students in North Hollywood. Kasten and his wife, Rochelle, were among a core group of 10 to 12 who met every Wednesday night for more than a year, planning and directing the effort.
“I was going to school and working, I was falling asleep at the meetings, but I went,” said Rochelle Kasten. “You make a commitment and it gives you the extra energy.”
The Kastens live in a 4,100-square-foot house in a gated community. Nearby are Calabasas’ oldest neighborhood, the 1927 Park Moderne subdivision, and developments of large homes.
“A lot of people thought we didn’t have a chance,” Kasten recalled. “They said, ‘The school has a lot of friends and a lot of money; you’re wasting your time.’ ”
The case had an ironic aspect. Kasten owns a real estate and development company in Lincoln Heights, where he has helped in the continuing fight against the coming of a state prison.
“ ‘We want schools’ is what we’re saying out there, and in Calabasas, I worked to stop one,” he said. “It doesn’t look good. It’s weird to be on two sides like that.”
But Kasten contended that the site purchased by Oakwood, 17 acres zoned for single-family homes on 1-acre lots, was not suitable for a school. The Kastens have lived next to the parcel since 1985.
“When we moved here, there was a beat-up sign on the land--'16 Custom Acre Homesites,’ ” he said. “Even if someone got a conditional-use permit for more, what could you see? Thirty-two homes, maybe? Compared to 580 students and a staff of 100, you’re looking at a big difference in usage.”
A photograph of the sign went into a 40-page booklet prepared by the anti-Oakwood group. Also included were results of traffic, noise and flood-control studies commissioned by the group; an aerial photograph showing houses packed together along narrow roads; letters from six real estate agents contending that the coming of Oakwood would lower property values, and statements of support from nearby homeowner groups.
Forty copies of the booklet, produced and printed at a cost of $5,000, were distributed to Los Angeles County supervisors and other officials. The group also hired a lawyer. Calabasas is in unincorporated county territory and falls under the county’s planning jurisdiction.
One of Kasten’s jobs was political liaison. He said he lobbied not only the area’s supervisor, Antonovich, but other supervisors as well. One of his group’s major victories came in February, 1988, when the board delayed a vote on the Oakwood project and asked the school to provide further environmental impact information.
Oakwood Headmaster James Astman said last week that it was this and other delays that forced the school to withdraw its application for a conditional-use permit. The school announced in August that it was dropping the relocation plan and would sell the land.
“Each delay cost us a great deal of money,” Astman said. “It would be an unfortunate message to say that all neighbors have to do is saber-rattle and projects will pull out. At least a couple of the delays were related to the opposition, but by no means all of them.”
Both Astman and Kasten said Antonovich’s reelection drive was a factor in the delays.
“Antonovich was in a tough position,” Kasten said. “He wanted to support the school and he wanted to support us. I think the election helped a lot. If this was happening now, right after he was elected, it wouldn’t go the way it has.”
A spokeswoman for Antonovich said the supervisor still had not made up his mind on the proposed move when Oakwood pulled out. The school sold the land for $5.25 million, making a profit of $2.4 million, and the new owner has advertised 1-acre lots for sale at $550,000 each.
Astman remains generally critical of neighborhood opposition to schools.
“While homeowners use a familiar litany of community concerns, prior to opposing these projects, they have not generally demonstrated that community consciousness,” he said.
Alma Martinez, chief of staff for Councilwoman Gloria Molina, said that particular criticism does not apply to Kasten, whose business is in Molina’s district. Martinez said Kasten has flown to Sacramento to lobby against the prison project, arranged free office space for nonprofit groups and worked against an unpopular proposed light-rail route.
Kasten said he had no ethical qualms about fighting Oakwood’s move. He, his wife and two children lived in Woodland Hills for 20 years before moving to Calabasas.
“One of the reasons we moved here was to have a little bit of a country feeling,” he said. “We didn’t want to lose that.”