When citizens of Olive Hill came to city council last week with concerns that the possible relocation of the fire department to their neighborhood would result in noise disturbances, fire chief Jeremy Rodgers said he could issue orders to his crew not to sound their sirens until they had left the neighborhood. But Olive Hill Mayor Jerry Callihan was more blunt.
“What makes sirens next to your house any different than sirens next to a housing project?” the mayor asked.
Callihan may not have been as diplomatic as Rodgers, but he made a valid point. There is a tendency in public policy discussions towards wanting the benefits of a service, while leaving others to deal with the downsides, that is so common it has its own name and acronym – Not In My Back Yard, or NIMBY.
It’s an understandable tendency. Everyone wants cheap meat, but they don’t want to live next to the smell of the feedlot. Everyone wants the convenience of plastic packaging, but no one wants to have a landfill in their back yard.
Everyone loves the idea of low fire insurance rates. No one likes the idea of being awakened by sirens at 4 in the morning. It’s undeniably inconvenient, no one can argue that it isn’t.
It isn’t inherently bad to dislike the inconvenience either. It doesn’t make you a bad person to want to avoid inconvenience. And it is absolutely the right of every individual to be heard by their government, to tell them when they don’t like their plans, and to have their concerns taken seriously. It’s a right that we at the Times would defend just as passionately as any other aspect of the First Amendment.
But the NIMBY phenomenon is inherently problematic because everywhere is someone’s back yard. If no one wants the inconvenience in their back yard, then no one can enjoy the benefits. On the other side of that, if any of us are going to enjoy the benefits, some of us are going to have to deal with the inconvenience.
More often than not, those who deal with the inconvenience tend to be those who are lower income. In neighboring Morehead, for instance, residents of the North Fork trailer park have had to deal with eviction so that others can enjoy the convenience of a new shopping center. While it is absolutely the property owners’ right to do with their land as they see fit, it’s not the type of development that generally comes into upscale neighborhoods.
There are other aspects to this. The wealthy are more likely to own, whereas the poor are more likely to rent from other landowners, giving them less agency over the property they call home. There is also the issue of property value. Residential properties near junk yards, dumps, mixed use areas, and, yes, fire stations are also likely to be cheaper, because of the inconvenience. This makes it more affordable for lower income people who want to purchase property – or developers catering to low income renters – to locate there.
This isn’t inherently good or bad either. For those who want to purchase a home, one next to a fire department they can afford – with great fire insurance rates as a result – could seem like the answers to a prayer. For those who haven’t had to deal with the noise before, the idea of having it suddenly on your doorstep could understandably be distressing.
But Callihan’s point raises some really valuable questions. Why should others have to deal with things we aren’t willing to deal with ourselves? If they do, don’t they deserve an extra measure of thanks and respect for doing so? And why does it usually have to be the poor?
We aren’t here to shame those who are asking the city to reconsider putting a fire house in their backyard. We can’t say we wouldn’t feel exactly like you if our sleep were in jeopardy.
We are here, however, to praise those who accept it for the good of the entire community. We know it isn’t convenient or always pleasant to have the noise on your doorstep. But it needs to be somewhere.
Thank you for letting it be near you, for the good of us all.