Advice for Fighting NIMBY Label

New Jersey calls itself the Garden State, but a better nickname might be the traffic state.

Where I live in central New Jersey, cars rule the roost. The average commute for someone traveling from Hamilton to South Brunswick -- a 15-mile trip -- can often take 45 minutes or more, depending on the time of the day.

The area has exploded with new housing in the last two-plus decades, more than doubling the population and, seemingly, quadrupling the number of cars on the road.

The response from state and county governments has been to propose a maze of new roads -- a solution that might seem logical but ultimately will have deleterious impacts for the region, in lost wetlands, lost farmland, dirty water, etc.

The state and its various agencies have been smart, pitching the road plans as tonics for the traffic weary, labeling the proposed roadways as regional solutions that will save local roads and keep cars and trucks moving.

Each of these solutions has brought with it more problems ö and, in many cases, opposition from local residents who rightly see the road projects as doing nothing for traffic while becoming a magnet for sprawl.

In South Brunswick, where I live, the state Turnpike Authority is pushing ahead with plans to build a seven-mile, four-lane toll road that would link the 118-mile New Jersey Turnpike with what is known as the Route 1 Corridor, a stretch of local highway that runs across the central part of the state.

The toll road, known as Route 92, has an interesting history that stretches back more than 60 years. In its earliest conception, the highway was supposed to link several local roadways and give people in the central part of the state an easier way to move east and west and provide folks in the northwest a better and more convenient way to get to the Jersey Shore.

But over the years, as residential and commercial development has altered the landscape, that vision of Route 92 changed. The highway ran into opposition in one town after another, until the long swath of roadway that was initially envisioned was reduced to the nearly useless turnpike spur now being proposed.

Useless, that is, except for the development interests who see the road as a way to enhance their bottom lines. The current proposal would link a corporate office park at one end of the road with a warehouse district and the turnpike at the other -- chewing up acres of wetlands and destroying the rural nature of the area it is slated to cross over.

As I said, Central Jersey has become a mass of suburban sprawl, but there are chunks of it that hearken back to an earlier time period, areas where open fields, forests and farmlands still exist. Route 92 is slated to cut through such an area.

Watching this battle as a newspaper editor has been frustrating, because in many ways it is an example of how not to take on government and the business interests that support it.

The reason? The fighters have been a little too polite, a little too unwilling to get their hands dirty or make a little noise. Much of the opposition has been conducted via closed-door meetings with government officials taking the lead. There have been no large-scale protests, no public displays of opposition. The opponents -- who include many of the readers of my own local paper -- understand that this project has significant impacts beyond South Brunswick and the region. They just haven't gotten their word out the way they should.

Partly, they've been mired in a fear that if they were to be loud and make a lot of noise they would tip off their opposition about what they might do next. But, why worry? Why not tell the world that they plan to do everything in their power to fight this $400 million highway? Why not scream it as loudly as they can?

This is the issue that many community activists face, especially those in suburban communities who have spent their whole lives working within the system, assuming their local and state governments are there for their protection.

But the history of citizen movements shows that being out front and vocal offers a better chance at success than surreptitious meetings and backroom strategy sessions. The key is to be loud and articulate and to involve as many people and groups in your issue as you can. You need to create a mass movement of people focused on the same goal.

This is the lesson at the center of the Love Canal story, in which average working class parents stood up to the state of New York and the large chemical company that polluted their neighborhood and forced them to clean up the polluted area and to relocate residents living in the polluted neighborhoods to cleaner areas.

This is the lesson that so many community activists have learned over the years, that you need to broaden your battles, move them from your backyards and into the larger arena, showing that what is being done to you can be done to anyone, anywhere. You need to get on television, confront the power brokers in the corridors of power and you need to stay active and keep fighting.

There are no guarantees, but you've got no chance if you don't make the effort. It's that simple.

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of two central New Jersey weekly newspapers. Email

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