Readers of the New York Times will be aware of this summer’s non-news event: the construction of a Whiffleball field in Greenwich, Connecticut, by a group of teenage boys who cleared brush, braved poison ivy, scrounged a few building materials and bought some paint so they could build their field of dreams on some town-owned land. An idyllic kids’ project until – who knew? – the neighbors decided they didn’t like it, complained, and the accusations (on both sides) began to fly. Traffic. Noise. The real motives of the narrow-minded neighbors. The lack of outdoor activities for kids these days. Why the kids hadn’t gotten a permit, etc. etc. Nothing really significant here – hell, the country’s in a war nobody wanted, the economy’s in the tank and the leadership of the Free World is at stake this year – while Greenwich and the New York Times are fussing over Whiffleball.

But wait – something is going on, and it goes on everywhere including Maine. We call it NIMBY, standing for Not In My Back Yard, and it’s a universal phenomenon in parts of the world other than the former Soviet Union, North Korea or Myanmar. NIMBY rears its head on islands, on waterfronts, in neighborhoods. We address it through zoning, permitting and other official means; being the sort of people we are in Maine, we encourage everyone to stand up and state his objections whenever someone proposes to do something. Nothing wrong with all this, of course – if you don’t understand, you haven’t read Colin Woodard’s book The Lobster Coast, which puts forth the theory that Maine’s has a do-your-own-thing culture because it was settled by freethinkers, squatters and other malcontents who didn’t like Great Proprietors, central governments and other big shots telling them what to do. Want to consolidate the schools? Better check with the locals first. Want to close the University of Maine at Fort Kent? Better check with John Martin. Want to build a coal-fired power plant in Wiscasset? Better find out what the lobster fishermen in the Sheepscot River think. Want to build a fancy replacement for the Maine State Pier in Portland? A wind power project near the Appalachian Trail? Condos on Camden’s waterfront? Catch lobsters in Monhegan’s territorial waters? Put up a cell phone tower in the view shed of summer folks who don’t care to look at such things? Drill for oil offshore or worse, build an LNG facility somewhere? As I said, you’d better check with the locals or at least the local special interest first. And once you’ve done that and you remain interested in your project, you’d be well advised to lay in stores for a long fight. Or at least a lot of careful convincing.

I’m not saying NIMBYism is bad – to the contrary, I’d argue that in a great many cases, informed local opposition has brought down a lot of bad projects. We don’t have an oil refinery in Eastport because a lot of determined people there and elsewhere in Maine did the hard work necessary to stop it. Bringing loaded tankers through Head Harbor Passage didn’t make sense 30 years ago and doesn’t make sense today. Call it NIMBY and think negatively of the opposition if you must, but at least in the case of the Eastport refinery, good public policy has prevailed. Will it prevail in the related case of offshore drilling, where the Bush administration and  the oil industry are acting predictably and an alarming number of politicians concerned about high gasoline prices are waffling this summer? Oh, we’ll probably cut some dumb deal where we give Big Oil a few more leases somewhere in exchange for promises not to drill in a few special places, so a few ill-informed congressmen and candidates can tell voters they’re doing something about the price at the pump. We certainly won’t solve anyone’s energy problems. And if we drill on Georges Bank or in the Gulf of Maine, all we will have done is threaten the already-on-the-ropes fishing industry. In these cases, I’d argue that NIMBYism has its virtues.

On the other hand we shouldn’t be stopping everything. Wind power projects are a great example: islands and Maine in general can clearly benefit from them, as could places blessed with Trade Winds or other weather patterns that can be counted on to spin the turbines and make kilowatts for essentially nothing. Opposition to such projects will always be written off as NIMBYism by some – and should be where wind turbines are inappropriate – but in general, developing renewable energy is almost as good an idea as insulating your attic, driving less, taking the bus or trail, or walking to the store or to school.

NIMBY can be a convenient label to stick onto people we disagree with. But in fact, it’s an honored tradition in Maine, where questioning salesmen, would-be developers, governments putting forth bad ideas or just about anyone who’s trying to convince us of anything we’re suspicious of – is a civic duty.

Fight fiercely, Greenwich! Meanwhile, play ball!

David D. Platt is former editor of Working Waterfront.