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NIMBY NATION: County has colorful history of citizen uprisings

Kanuga residents have organized to stop a road widening. Kanuga residents have organized to stop a road widening.

When he started his unlikely fight against a gigantic project to build 14 dams on tributaries of the French Broad River, Jere Brittain knew the odds were stacked against him.

A sixth generation native of Mills River, Brittain built his movement through sheer force of will, plus the help of a grassroots army that drew recruits in a way he did not expect.
“That was the strangest, almost perfect storm kind of time,” Brittain, 82, said last week. “The Environmental Policy Act of 1969 had just been enacted and that gave us some kind of legal basis demanding that the TVA hold hearings, which they had never been done. They had just been arbitrarily marching their way through the watershed corridor.”
The more noise Brittain and his small band of protesters made, the more people paid attention.
“When these retirees around here — many of them from other places, a lot of them former business executives, especially in Transylvania County — heard about this shirttail movement on the part of a few of the natives to try to do a lost cause you might say to fend off this gigantic bureaucracy, which had never been defeated, they started showing up at their meetings,” he said.
“People like Hap Simpson, the marketing manager for International Harvester; Elmer Johnston, a vice president of Gibson Greeting card company; Martha Boswell, a retired schoolteacher and League of Women Voters activist.”
What Brittain described sounded a lot like the standard dynamic that’s forming many grassroots movements to block what residents regard as undesirable change. Brittain and his fellow dam fighters didn’t know the word nimby — for Not In My Backyard — because it hadn’t even been coined. The Encyclopedia Britannica says the acronym seems to have originated in the mid-1970s in connection with citizen fights against nuclear plants.
There is no doubt, by whatever name, that the fight pitting the Upper French Broad Valley folks against the TVA would foretell a reprise of the tune many times over.
Among its dozens of descendants, the closest we found to this father of land-use challenges was the community’s successful battle to defeat Duke Energy’s plan to run a 45-mile high-voltage transmission line through Henderson County. Both the Duke Power and the TVA fights brought diverse groups together and drew from a broad base of residents and experts.
“The glue that held it together was not the green movement by any means,” Brittain said of the TVA fight, which ended in 1972. “It was very much of a protest against the powers of imminent domain that the TVA and an argument that it was not a justifiable taking of property. It was really politically a Republican cause and lo and behold, the environmental movement that was building up steam, like the Sierra Club and the Conservation Club of North Carolina, all got behind it. It was a very unique constellation you might say of interests.”

Protests beget moratorium?

Now interests all around Henderson County seem to be springing into action against nearly everything.
As we report elsewhere in this issue, nimby movements have an impressive record of succeeding here — defeating everything from shooting ranges to incinerators to music festivals to highway bypasses. Protests have become so prevalent that at least one county commissioner, Grady Hawkins, wants to call a timeout on development. The Board of Commissioners will hold a public hearing and discuss his moratorium proposal on Nov. 6.
“We’re going to have to really seek a balance between the housing growth and the amount of jobs we’ve been able to generate, which is great, to balance out our resources so that one area is not overstressed than the other,” he said. (See story on Page 2.)
County Commissioner Tommy Thompson, who announced last week that he is retiring from public office after 40 years, sees the proclivity to protest as a piece of a national trend.
“I don’t think this is a problem of our community any more so than it is in others,” Thompson said. “I think people are getting to the point where the greasy gear gets the lubrication and everybody feels that if I don’t like something they complain about it, as opposed to accepting progress, if you will. It’s a mentality of the people of our day to complain.
“If I called a news conference down here at the Courthouse to announce that starting Monday the lawn on this courthouse will be cut one-quarter of an inch taller that it has been cut over these last many years, somebody would complain,” he said. “That’s the mentality.”