Careful whom you call a NIMBY.
While they may agree that more high-density housing is all but inevitable as the state grows, up to a third of Utahns would rather it occur “not in my backyard.”
A new statewide poll commissioned by regional planners at Envision Utah shows up to 32% of residents agree that they are “more comfortable with development in other nearby cities or towns but not in my own community.”
A third of respondents are neutral on the notion and another third disagree, according to survey data compiled by student researchers at Brigham Young University.
The findings show, among other things, the startling extent to which NIMBY views are held among longtime residents — and how far the effects of development and population growth are reaching into everyday lives, according to Ari Bruening, CEO at Envision Utah.
“The first thing to recognize is, the NIMBYs are probably all of us at some level,” he said. “Any one of us is going to oppose some kind of development near us.”
The survey also indicates that residents meeting this simple NIMBY definition are more likely to speak out in opposition at public meetings on development. Particular distaste also surfaces in the survey toward apartments, condominiums and town homes — living options often called “a missing middle” in Utah’s housing picture.
Respondents across the spectrum are more likely to say they prefer single-family homes next door, on their street or in their neighborhood. They want higher-density forms of housing farther away — or nowhere at all.
One in 10 sees no suitable place for apartment complexes of nine units or more — even as scores of these structures spring up along the Wasatch Front.
The poll also offers wider signs of Utahns’ anxiety over growth, a trend other research shows has been rising since 2018. Despite a pressing housing shortage, nearly half the respondents agree that “some Utah communities should approve less housing in order to slow growth.” That view skews far higher — to roughly two-thirds — among Utahns older than 65.
Increased traffic, a greater sense of crowding, more crime and loss of green space are cited in the survey as top consequences of multifamily housing “in your community.” Worries over soaring housing costs, diminished property values and worsening air pollution rank close behind.
Measuring a disconnect
The poll’s stark results emerge as planners seek to explain a persistent anomaly in public sentiment as Utahns cope with the impacts of steady population increases outstripping the rest of the country.
In myriad public planning efforts, large majorities of Utahns consistently say they prefer a variety of housing types, mixing commercial and residential land uses, clustering homes near job centers, and making communities more walkable.
“But that doesn’t always play out in city council meetings,” said Bruening, referring to a spate of often high-profile conflicts over new developments in communities across the state.
The poll, which sampled 445 Utahns’ views on growth, housing and public involvement, finds that people meeting that NIMBY definition are more likely to have household incomes above $150,000 and reside in larger, stand-alone homes. They tend to have plans to stay in their current residence for the near future.
Those who are more comfortable with nearby development, on the other hand, are more likely to have lower household incomes and, not surprisingly, live in apartments or condos.
The survey also hints at a sharp disconnect between the public and City Halls across the state, with large numbers of residents unaware of how to weigh in on land-use issues when it matters. Only about a third of respondents say they know where, when or how to provide such public input.
Roughly 57% had never attended a city council meeting, but those who prefer growth outside their communities are more likely to be involved, with nearly 21% saying they had turned out to public hearings at some point to oppose development.
The survey also reveals residents’ relative ire for manufactured homes close to where they live. While these forms of housing are viewed as a robust and relatively inexpensive option, just under 20% see no suitable place for mobile or manufactured homes.
Residents who do see benefits to having more apartments and similar housing options in their neighborhoods point to improved affordability, more amenities such as transportation, restaurants and retail options as well as increased diversity. They also tend to regard improved racial and economic equity, better school options for low-income children and a “better sense of community” as top benefits from higher-density housing.
Public input vs. knee-jerk opposition
The poll does not measure how many of those meeting its definition of NIMBY live in Utah’s built-out cities as opposed to more suburban communities with developable land. But it’s surprising that a third of poll respondents acknowledge their “not in my backyard” views so openly.
With Utah’s stepped-up pace of growth, “NIMBY” has become a loaded and often pejorative term in land-use disputes, with the label sometimes implying a double standard and blunting grassroots opposition to specific developments.
“They’ve called us that at every opportunity,” says Peter Wright, one of several Avenues residents pushing back against a higher-density housing project in their Salt Lake City neighborhood that they worry could diminish their quality of life.
Like countless Utahns who’ve fought development proposals near their homes in recent years, Wright instead sees his actions as part of advocating to preserve what he and others value about their neighborhood.
“If we were NIMBYs, we’d say we don’t want any development there other than single-family homes,” he says of the Ivory Homes proposal at the north end of F Street at 13th Avenue. “And we’re not. We’re just saying we want them to develop something that is appropriate to the site.”
Justin Swain, a Herriman resident who opposed the high-density Olympia Hills project that ultimately won approval in southwest Salt Lake County, echoes that view.
“Folks’ll say, ‘If you accept the proposal, you’re not a NIMBY. If you oppose it, you are one,’ ” Swain complained. “We’re not against development. We’re against development when the variables surrounding that don’t make sense.”
NIMBY sentiment is also being blamed more and more in Utah’s debate about affordable housing, viewed alongside city zoning on density as a primary driver in escalating home prices and in making new and more accessible rental units harder to construct.
City zoning laws and NIMBYism “have made it almost impossible to build fast enough to keep up with the needs of our state,” Thomas Wright, president of Summit Sotheby’s International Realty and a prominent Utah Republican, wrote in an October Deseret News opinion piece.
Wright called for a shift in public attitudes at the state and local level in favor of more medium-density development.
The view reaches across the political spectrum, too. Calling it “a syndrome,” the progressive Alliance for a Better Utah has opined that, given Utah’s challenges with air pollution and generations of urban sprawl, “none of us can afford to say ‘not in my backyard’ any longer.”