Nordic Aquafarms skeptics Austin Bergstrom, Babette Cohen-Solal and Nancy Durand Lanson (left to right) stand during a community dialogue session about the proposed land-based salmon farm, Nov. 29, 2018.

Not in my backyard.

It’s an old phrase that seems to be taking on new life, especially in Greater Belfast, where almost every recent development proposal — from the land-based salmon farm to a new Tractor Supply to turning an old school into apartments — has been met with noisy, sometimes hostile, opposition.

And as those localized debates about specific developments play out, a separate examination of what it means to be a “NIMBY” and what it means to accuse someone of being one has intensified the conflicts.

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People are objecting to these projects for all kinds of reasons, of course: fears about pollution, water use, urban sprawl and neighborhood decline, to name a few. But underlying all these objections may be one, more simple idea: “we just don’t want that here.”

“You see it over and over again, in letters from people. ‘I just moved here. I moved here because …’ So many people are new here, and they want it to stay exactly as it is,” Belfast City Councilor Mike Hurley said. “But our backyard is going to change. All of our backyards are changing. And people think that everything is in their backyard.”

Some Mainers do not think that the phrase “not in my backyard,” or NIMBY, is a good explanation for what is happening when people push back against development. Linda Buckmaster is one of them. The Belfast writer is part of Local Citizens for SMART Growth: Salmon Farm, an opposition group that is fighting Nordic Aquafarms’ proposal to build one of the world’s largest land-based salmon farms in Belfast.

“I think it’s just a distraction word, and people use it to avoid discussing the actual issues,” she said. “We’re not saying ‘not in our backyard,’ as far as the salmon farm goes. We’re saying ‘not in anybody’s backyard.’”

‘The devil you don’t know’

Caroline Noblet, a University of Maine assistant professor in the School of Economics, also thinks that NIMBY misses the mark.

“I know it’s a term that people are familiar with,” she said. “I think people are making choices not just about themselves, but also their community, and sometimes with NIMBYism, it understates that complexity.”

Noblet, who researches the changing environmental and economic landscape of Maine, prefers the phrase “sense of place.” Place matters, especially in Maine, where both the economy and identity are very much tied to natural resources. When people perceive that the place is being threatened, it hits home.

“[People worry] if my place is changing, does that change me?” Noblet said.

There is also something called a “status quo bias,” which can explain why people push back so strongly against new development proposals.

“People are afraid of change, research has shown,” Noblet said. “It’s the devil you know, versus the devil you don’t know.”

In her research on land-based wind energy, she found that words affect the way people feel about change. One takeaway is that land-based wind was generally more accepted when researchers said that Maine has always been a leader of clean energy and Mainers have always figured out a way to make natural resources work. But when they used words like “new” and “innovative,” it certainly didn’t win over people who are economically stressed, Noblet said.

“When you have an innovator come in and say, ‘this is a cool new thing,’ maybe if they were able to talk about their idea in a different way, they might have better luck,” she said.

Still, something to keep in mind is that strong negative reactions to new things often diminish over time.

“In the beginning, when it’s proposed, people hate it. You hate it more when you see it built,” she said. “But then you see it in the landscape, and you’re fine with it. It’s part of our town and it’s fine.”

Power and process

When it comes to opposition to development, something else that matters a lot to people is process, another University of Maine researcher said. Were there conversations held around the proposals that felt inclusive, fair and took into consideration how people see their communities? Bridie McGreavy, an assistant professor of environmental communication at the University of Maine who has done a lot of work around shellfish aquaculture, said that the licensing process for these proposals is far from simple.

“There’s public participation, but it’s a pretty complicated process. It’s not streamlined in any way, I would say,” she said.

There’s also often a power imbalance between those who have the money and education to start an aquaculture project and those who will be sharing the intertidal zones with them, or who live in the communities where the projects will be sited. This power imbalance can amplify feelings of frustration, or simply the sense held by many project opponents that they are not being heard.

“I think people will think that dissenters want to determine the outcome,” McGreavy said. “That can be the case. But oftentimes they want to see how their comments were incorporated, evaluated, and have some kind of influence on the decision. It speaks to transparency in the process.”

Democracy is inherently messy, she said, and everyone can’t get everything they want all the time. But it’s still possible to work toward better outcomes by doing things such as holding community forums that are based on listening and where participants demonstrate mutual respect for each other. That wouldn’t look like the typical public meeting, where officials sit at a table separated from attendees, who are meant to register their concerns in just a few minutes at the microphone.

That has been a constant refrain from Belfast development opponents, who have often complained that the rules around public comment do not allow discussion. They complain that they speak but are not heard.

Peter Wilkinson, a Belfast resident who has been a vocal opponent of many development plans, said that he was at a Belfast City Council meeting last April when councilors voted to change the zoning to allow the salmon farm application to move forward. What he saw distressed him.

“Over 100 people showed up and 150 wrote in, opposed, but the council voted five to nothing to change the zoning. That really stung,” he said. “There was no consideration given. They completely disregarded all of that input. I think that in a town of 6,000 people, that’s a tragedy.”

But McGreavy said that it is possible to bring trust back to the process, no matter what the dispute is. It helps if there are respected people in the community who are open to hearing different opinions and perspectives and who can be ambassadors to more polarized factions.

“You start with listening and move forward to brainstorming. What might be possible here,” she said. “Otherwise, you get stuck in these feedback loops, where everybody feels like they’re spinning their wheels and saying the same thing over and over again. The conflict just gets more entrenched.”