Old Geezers Out to Lunch

Old Geezers Out to Lunch
The Geezers Emeritus through history: The Mathematician™, Dr. Golf™, The Professor™, and Mercurious™

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The "Not -in-My-Backyard" Syndrome

Here in Minneapolis, a civic issue being discussed frequently these days is the planning for an additional LRT (Light Rail Transit) line for linking the affluent southwestern suburbs with the business center in downtown Minneapolis. What's unfolding is an interesting example of the subjective nature of ethical decision making.

Viewed from afar, a city's decisions on public works projects like this seems relatively easy: decide what offers the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens, and be willing to sacrifice the needs and wishes of a minority in order to achieve that. In other words, it's entirely ethical for a city to condemn private property of a few people if, for example, it then helps create a park or hospital or some other project that's very much in the interest of many people.

In this particular Minneapolis example, some homeowners along the intended LRT route will lose some of their privacy, as well as some of the access to natural resources, that they have enjoyed up to now. But this cost will also provide greater access to downtown businesses and resources for  quite a large number of people, as well as improve the tax base of Minneapolis proper, since it will help those local businesses flourish.

For obvious reasons, cities normally seize property that falls in questionable neighborhoods, or neighborhoods inhabited by disenfranchised citizens who are less likely to voice opposition. Pretty hard to put a freeway through a neighborhood of wealthy, politically connected folks, for example, no matter how many people benefit

In our current example, a number of quite affluent and influential homeowners along one of the nicer stretches of the intended route are now agitating to prevent construction of the LRT line. It's easy enough to say that these wealthy homeowners along Cedar Lake in the MInneapolis Kenwood neighborhood are behaving selfishly, in their own best interests rather than the interest of the greater good as they attempt to block construction of a public utility that would clearly benefit many people. It's only about two dozen homes that are really affected by having their backyard viewlines changed.  Those homes, however, belong to folks with a hefty amount of clout.

Originally a double-wide freight train pathway, half of the rail bed became
a very pleasant bike path more than 20 years ago Now, efforts to reclaim the rail
bed for a commuter light-rail line have local residents outraged. 
Personal interest inevitably will blind you to this kind of thing. A few months ago, when the flight paths in and out of Minneapolis international airport were being rerouted, the proposed changes were clearly going to benefit many neighborhoods at the expense of a few. At the time, I felt that protesters were being a little selfish in arguing against such a move. Then I realized that my own neighborhood would be among those affected negatively by the move, and suddenly I saw some logic in those protests.

It's also true that an LRT line would primarily benefit  suburbanites seeking access to the downtown districts, and would not be of huge benefits to us in the city.  Years ago, a major freeway was cut through the heart of Minneapolis, aimed specifically at delivering office workers into downtown from the suburbs. 40 years later, large chunks of once fine neighborhoods along Park Avenue still have not recovered from the devastation. Is our city really obliged to chop up more of our real estate just to make it easier for prissy suburbanites to get to their jobs?

...on the other hand, those very commuters from the despised wealthy suburbs are what make it possible for Minneapolis to support major league sports team, world class theater and museums, etc. etc. Easy access to downtown for the suburbanites means that I can hop over to the ballpark or the Guthrie Theater after work with ease.

By 2020, there could be a big wad of brown
noise over my home to the west of Minneapolis
airport. Unless the revolution comes first. 

It's not an easy issue to resolve. We are all at heart somewhat selfish creatures, and setting that self-interest aside to support the greater public good is difficult indeed. My current derision at the selfishness of Kenwood residents seems logical only because I don't happen to live there and only occasionally use the bike and nature trails located there. I'd no doubt feel much different if I lived 30 blocks closer. 

Just keep that flight path away from my sky.


  1. As a reporter I covered many such NIMBY issues. You did a great job of putting it into a personal and easy to understand context and with balance. Home ownership and personal property rights are deeply held values that people are willing to fight over. You raise an interesting philosophical aspect-the tyranny of the majority with a strong dose of self interest (an easier commute). It's a little bit like an Adam Smith-how free is the market exercise. Cities need to assure that people will use them, even when populations spread to the burbs. So put in freeways (cutting up neighborhoods) or LTR (slicing up views and property) so those who do not live in the city can come to the city to leave money. Hmmmm! The rights of the city vis a vis the rights of individuals. But of course under girding the entire discussion is commerce, which goes beyond the scope of a city as a place for commonweal. Seems as though business interests are being placated, in the name of the city, and at the expense of the individual property owners. Is there a pattern here?
    You've provoked thought, again!

  2. Or, as the director of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park said, no park visitor will have their stay enhanced by knowing 400 people lost their homes.
    Or as we tell strangers here in the valley, if you pass a bunch of daffodils blooming along the road, there was a house there. In a hundred years or so it may be "for the common good," but it's only been sixty years. Not enough generations have died.