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A Backyard Battle: Trials of a Garden-Variety NIMBY

Nandita Godbole advocates for parks and greenspaces around Atlanta. But when faced with a struggle over keeping her own quarter-acre backyard open and free, she found she was powerless.
October 8, 2009, 5am PDT | Nandita Godbole
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Each NIMBY issue is an 'elsewhere' issue for most of us. But when that elsewhere becomes your backyard, you can become 'those people'. Our transformation to NIMBYs happened like this.

In late-2005, my husband and I moved from a lush Midwestern university town, into the hustle and bustle of Atlanta and its pulsating urbanity, and just short of when the car began to feel 'homey'. We reached Georgia, the land of Peach-everything. By moving here, we had forced ourselves to negotiate the contrasts between high rises and blighted communities, between lush private yards while city budgets struggled to keep up, and a metro that was not always peachy. We were ready to become amalgamated sub-urbanites.

 the play-bor-yard.
Our "play-bor-yard."

Having scoped the market with two separate realtors for some time – and armed with a second mortgage – we found a modest place to live. Tucked away in a cookie-cutter, HOA-overseen subdivision in the mostly duotone suburb of Roswell, this place had a beautiful unfenced back yard, a sizable lawn and a long tree buffer (I envisioned an urban wildlife habitat corridor). We shared boundaries with a community area and welcomed its proximity. However, this being our first free-standing home, the task of converting a bank-owned, climate-controlled box of air, into 'home' – was formidable. Much like the architects retrofitting homes for immigrants, this box and its surroundings slowly began to transform as we resettled our lives. We became proud owners of our first electric lawn mower, also a first for the neighborhood. With his rusty complexion and yard-work garb, my husband was quickly mistaken for the community landscaping crew. The bright orange power cord purposely sprawled across the lawn and into an outlet in our garage was not obvious. This was only week one.

Over time, the neighborhood playground turned out to be an unsafe shaky structure and the community pool was a seasonal amenity. There were kids at the bus stop, but none roamed the neighborhood. There were no moms with strollers. No kids on bikes, no teens on rollerblades or skateboards. No little girls wanting to ride their scooters, no parents wanting to play a game of spontaneous kickball with their kids. None of this happened because there was no place for it to happen. No fields, no open spaces clean enough for a family to sit down – except our side yard.

At just one-tenth of an acre, our space wasn't much, but it was really all the neighborhood had. So, we adopted the ‘share-my-lawn' policy, and out they emerged – to sit, to play, to throw a football on a crisp fall afternoon! I cheered them on, hoping this beautiful utopia would be inspirational. The backdrop of a large uninterrupted greenspace replete with scrubby pines, maples, dogwoods and undergrowth formed a 300-foot-long green corridor slowly became part of the 'play-bor-yard' - an ideal place where a young child's imagination takes wings. Yes, our large lawn became the neighborhood playground and we loved it.

Yet, as the first winter came around and playground activities reduced, neighborhood teens came out for a smoke. Not the 'will cause lung-cancer' Marlboro kind, but those requiring 'intervention'. Our lawn became the thoroughfare for 'deals' and sit-downs. I kept watch onto it from my home-office each day and that kept some activities down, but did not stop them all together. This summer we experienced a spate of car break-ins in the neighborhood. Our HOA board decided to 'secure' the play area and surrounding pine buffer, with a combination of a 6-foot shadow box fence and a 4-foot wrought iron fence, armed with security cameras, and implicitly suggesting a reduction of tree-cover – all in an effort to reduce crime and trespassing. All in all, if put in, it would convert this pleasant green space and into a neighborhood eyesore.

But frankly, aesthetics were the least of our concerns. Both being eco-professionals, my husband and I knew that a fence like this carried with it a number of negative implications. It would interfere with lot-drainage because it infringed on sewer and drainage easements, it was visually unappealing, it would reduce our property values and it would also make our backyard completely unsafe. Needless to say, the view onto our mostly appealing, wide treeless lawn and its latent activities would be gone, and our entire neighborhood would lose our 'play-bor-yard'. So, we began to look for answers in the 'right places', i.e. the City.

 Fenced in.
Fenced in.

Unfortunately, city zoning laws have no influence on improvements to community properties because these grey areas are technically 'private'. City and County officials had no answers, laws or regulations that could impact this project. One of our city planners was too wet behind the ears to even understand the implications of this project, and simply went by the book. Even law-enforcement officials could not officially have an opinion on whether or not the fence and its proposed design would increase crime or reduce it.

We learned that although our HOA covenants required us residents to stay within a prescribed set of aesthetic norms, we had also signed away our rights to continue to enjoy the aesthetics and neighborhood qualities that we had bought into. The HOA Board has explicit powers to override community bylaws about making physical improvements, upholding environmental values such as tree removal, and maintaining overall community aesthetics. The board was absolved of needing neighborhood approval for improvements to community property or even the green cover. Several neighbors shared our concerns about this lack of responsibility, but empathy cannot change 'the books'.

The original land-plat for the subdivision only held some answers. It had guidelines for new construction submitted at time of original construction, particularly setbacks and easements for drainage and sewage. Our property, like every land lot in the United, yet frequently subdivided, States of America, also has these guidelines. Easements are protected areas where no permanent structures are allowed. But homeowners unfamiliar with the problems frequently erect fences in them. This happens easily, because private fences don't need permits. Unfortunately, most cities and counties don't intervene unless a drainage problem arises – in which case they remove the structure but are not obligated to repair or replace it. Educating the HOA of easement restrictions turned out to be our best option, but that does not guarantee anything.

It is exasperating that legal action – such as a cease-and-desist motion, which wastes time and money – is our only 'action-oriented' recourse. And the odds are that the HOA would win. I am galled that community members would be short-sighted enough to ignore the long-term impact of an improvement, and further frustrated that city policies are rendered powerless against them. It is disappointing that communities are unable to recognize the wealth of appeal and goodwill gained by retaining a large uninterrupted green space. The sad part is that a large uninterrupted green space that only adds to community charm has little or no value in subdivided America, and is thoughtlessly sacrificed. What's even worse is that common-sense community policing could have easily solved the relatively minor problems associated with this public amenity. It is challenging to face the fact that while I spend my professional energies advocating for the thousands of acres of parks and greenspaces in Atlanta, my work has absolutely no bearing on my own quarter-acre property.

I ask: How can one educate reluctant neighbors on the benefits of 'play-bor-yards' and the qualitative strengths of shared green spaces? Is the aesthetic and social value or impact of 300 feet of an established tree buffer any different than several acres of green? Is the term 'NIMBY-ism' only applicable to a garden-variety homeowner striving to protect curb appeal, property values and personal safety, while maintaining environmental responsibility and neighborhood appeal? Do neighbors have no social responsibility on the qualitative and quantitative implications of their actions? Why do communities allow HOAs this degree of control over neighborhood aesthetics and property values without holding them responsible for actions that contradict their stated goals? How do we allow city governance and therefore its citizenry to become debilitated simply because a few inexperienced representatives uphold poorly crafted zoning laws? Or, do policy makers elected to safeguard community interests also share a larger chunk of the blame when they leave green areas that fall in 'grey' areas unaddressed? How long will we sit idly by and tolerate policies that create a conflicting stance on environmental responsibility and community wellbeing by ignoring the conscientious and responsible approach towards both residents and their urban environments?

Nandita Godbole is a Program Coordinator for the Park Visioning Program with Park Pride, Atlanta, a local non-profit.

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