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NIMBY can look different from the inside.

Mark Howard
My own back yard is an older subdivision that sticks out, blisterlike, from the southeastern edge of the Pinellas County peninsula into Tampa Bay. The homes, some new, most dating to the 1950s and 1960s, range from million-dollar waterfront homes to more modest houses a block or two inland that sell for a quarter as much. The neighborhood includes both black and white residents, with a nice mix of young professionals, working people, families with children of various ages, empty-nesters and retirees. Several residents grew up in the neighborhood and liked it enough to move back once they started their own families. The pride most feel in the community is reflected in a healthy neighborhood association — around for almost 60 years — that does a nice job at things like organizing volunteer work, pursuing beautification grants and keeping residents abreast of neighborhood micro-news — missing cats, dogs for adoption, stolen bicycles and the like.

A 25-acre corner of the neighborhood is occupied by the Westminster Shores retirement community. Parts of the movie Cocoon were filmed there. The Westminster retirees (about 275) live in apartments, in a mix of unobtrusive, well-maintained one- and two-story buildings that mesh nicely with the rest of the neighborhood, which otherwise consists of single-family homes. Everyone I know views the Westminster Shores retirees as neighbors and considers the retirement community part and parcel of the neighborhood.

Sadly, the relationship between the retirement community’s corporate parent and the neighborhood is more problematic. The company, a non-profit based in Orlando called Westminster Communities of Florida, is an offshoot of the Presbyterian Church and owns around 20 retirement communities in Florida.

For the past two years, the neighborhood and Westminster Communities have been fighting over the company’s plans to redevelop the retirement community. The buildings are aging, the apartments are small by today’s standards, the residents need a new dining facility and Westminster Communities wants to tear down most of what’s there and rebuild. I’ll miss seeing the small, neat bungalows that got such good display in Cocoon, but fair enough. In addition to a business journalist, the neighborhood includes a number of people — an architect, planners, contractors — who derive their livelihoods one way or another from growth or redevelopment and who appreciate the value of investment to the broader community.

The fight is over the size and scale of what Westminster Communities wants to do. Originally, the company proposed a monstrous array of seven multistory buildings along the waterfront. The neighborhood association hired an attorney to fight the plan and won at both circuit and district court levels. The company came back with a plan for one big six-story building that the association (with support from two adjacent neighborhood associations) believes is too massive, too tall, too close to the water and a nearby park and too out of character with the rest of the neighborhood. Ultimately, the city council agreed and nixed the proposal, unanimously.

The company has met once with a committee from the association to discuss its plan and says its approach “continues to be a cooperative approach” with its neighbors. But it may seek to end-run the neighborhood association by introducing a mediation process between it and the city council that could allow it to proceed with a big, tall building. The neighborhood association can offer testimony to the mediator about the project but isn’t a party to the mediation. Meanwhile, using a different corporate name, Westminster Communities continues to try to buy up single-family homes on its fringes, presumably as some kind of buffer for the multistory structure it seems intent on building. I suspect the neighborhood association will continue to fight. And so both sides may be in for a lot more aggravation and expense until the issue is resolved — hopefully with the company coming up with a reasonable design that can work as well with the neighborhood as the old one has.

When I talk to my children about what’s going on in our neighborhood, I take pains not to communicate in terms of a “noble neighbors vs. greedy company” archetype. Things might well have worked out completely differently, I’ve told them, if the company simply had a less blockheaded management style and had consulted with the neighborhood association as it developed its plans. Fact is, it’s always considered itself an island and never thought of itself as part of the neighborhood: Witness the “No Trespassing” signs it posts along the streets — city streets, by the way. Consider the failure of local managers to participate in neighborhood association events or meetings. Consider the way it has painted the single-family homes it buys an institutional beige rather than trying to preserve any sense that they’re part of a neighborhood.

I make clear to my children that Westminster Communities is completely justified in seeking to develop and operate its facility in a way that keeps it competitive. We may like those bungalows, but our neighborhood association shouldn’t be able to stop the company from developing its property in a reasonable, legal way. But I also point out to my children that we have property rights as well. And that the company isn’t entitled to the presumption of virtue either because it’s a business, because it’s a non-profit or because it’s willing to spend some money to put up a building.

Most of all, I want my children to understand that it’s important to strive for a sense of community — whether that involves serving on groups like the neighborhood association or running a business in a way that’s sensitive to its neighbors. They need to understand that democracy can be messy and boring and exhausting and can require standing up for yourself the way people in the neighborhood have, vocally but respectfully. I warn them against the frustration with the process — however friendly it may be toward development — that leads people toward foolish shortcuts like Hometown Democracy.

I believe, and want them to believe, that their participation matters in making their community something they can be proud of. As our neighborhood has shown so far, you don’t have a chance unless you’re willing to engage.