Politics Rules in Local Planning, Pt 3: What Can a Developer Do?

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(Robert J. Flavell is vice chairman of The Saint Consulting Group and co-author of NIMBY Wars: The Politics of Land Use. This article concludes a three-part series on real estate and politics.)

By Robert J. Flavell, The Saint Consulting Group


Citizens today will not take “no” for an answer. They are wealthier, better educated, and better focused than previous generations. Brought up during economic boom times, they have given rise to the soccer mom and lacrosse dad, for whose children nothing is too good. They not only expect participatory democracy, but deference and obedience from their public officials.

They have electronic, technological, and communications advantages that not only make organizing easier, but also lend themselves to new and imaginative strategies and tactics, like video petitioning, electronic signature collecting, and staging instant protest rallies.

They can quickly research the developer’s background, identify every past controversy and lawsuit, find every enemy, unearth every unkept promise, and urgently spread the information far and wide. They can quickly organize a demonstration, assemble a phone bank, or marshal their forces to pack the hall at a public hearing. They are prepared to impose massive political pressure on local officials, and they are ready to fund litigation to appeal project approvals, tying up the project, and extending a developer’s carrying charges on the site, for years.

Those who doubt that politics rules local decisions need only look at the record. Of 1,599 Walmarts proposed between 1998 and 2005, 1,040 were opened, according to a recent Columbia/Stanford university study. (Paul Ingram and Lori Qingyuan, Columbia University, and Hayagreeva Rao, Stanford University, “Trouble in Store: Probes, Protests and Store Openings by Wal-Mart: 1998-2005” October 1, 2009.http://www.columbia.edu/~pi17/walmart.pdf)

Opposition arose in 563 cases, and in 65 percent of those Walmart did not open a store. So, doing the math, about 365 proposed Walmarts drew opposition and did not open. At a conservative Walmart average of $60 million in revenue per store, those opponents dented Walmart’s gross by more than $20 billion per year, now and into the future and, at a profit margin of 3.34 percent, are costing the corporation something like $668 million annually. (If the figures seem high, remember that Walmart generated $446.9 billion in sales for the past fiscal year, had $111.8 billion in gross profits, and $15.77 billion in net income.)

One picture clearly emerges from this situation: since Walmart has the deepest pockets of any corporation in the world, winning or losing a land use battle is not about the money. Walmart could easily spend 1,000 or 10,000 times the amount that any citizens group could possibly raise, engage the best lawyers, buy the best locations, generate the best public relations and marketing programs—and yet they lost 365 times. Development managers planning projects might learn from Walmart’s lesson that in site fights, it’s not about the money; it’s about the politics.

“Big box” development is not alone in provoking aggressive citizen opposition. Similar antagonism arises for any substantial development—casinos, apartment buildings, industrial plants, office complexes, landfills—as well as for activities that some people find objectionable—mining, drilling, lumbering, quarries, wind farms, power plants—most passionately when proposed for development in the opponents’ back yards. Our own Saint Index has documented this narrative over the years.

What Can Development Executives Do?

Addressing the problem of citizen opposition requires a serious commitment of time and attention. It’s not a problem easily resolved by spending money or issuing a press release; perseverance in ongoing outreach and political campaign activity to win citizen support are essential. Here are some basics:

1) Organize your own group and form coalitions to influence existing groups. Support groups can help counterbalance opposition groups, and give public officials the political cover they need to vote in favor of your proposal. After all, if the public is perceived as favoring or evenly split on the project, officials only need reasonable justification—the pros outweigh the cons—to vote approval. If officials hear only from opponents, or see only opponents in the audience, they will assume opponents represent public sentiment, and you are likely to lose the vote.

Citizen groups have great influence with local officials because they perceive groups as powerful and issue-driven; the more citizen groups you have endorsing your project, the better. That’s why it’s vital to form your own group, or find an existing citizen group willing to take the lead in supporting your project. The lead group can then find common ground with other groups in the community to support the project and lend their influence to the mix. Each may have reasons differing from the others for supporting the project, which is helpful politically because it provides an aura of diversity and conveys an impression of popularity of the project with the townspeople. And the fact that diverse groups formed a coalition to support the project will impress public officials.

2) Find a local citizen leader. Once the developer has identified natural supporters, outreach efforts will be needed to contact, recruit, and organize them. For that, you’ll need to find a citizen leader in the community, usually a natural supporter who has leadership abilities and feels strongly that the community needs the project.

It’s important that a local resident lead the citizen group to provide credibility and assure effectiveness. Clearly, the developer cannot manage the group, or its members will be branded as dupes and the group will lack credibility and influence. An outsider won’t do to manage the group for much the same reason: lack of credibility and influence. Local residents will mistrust a stranger who suddenly appears in town just in time to accept leadership of the pro-development citizens group. But a local resident who has longstanding community ties and legitimate personal reasons for supporting the project will be accepted at face value, and has the credibility to round up community support. The best way to find such a leader is to look among your natural supporters for a person with leadership skills who has the time and enthusiasm to do the job right.

3) Be prepared to support that group financially. You may well need to quietly fund the support group, but their expenses should be small—the cost of flyers and urns of coffee. Remember that a group seen as bought will also be seen as hirelings. The group needs to appear independent of you and your company, which means that they may disagree with you on some points, or may have different ideas of what constitutes adequate mitigation. Taking their suggestions seriously and treating them with respect will win you points in the community.

Citizen Group Effectiveness and Activities

The effort to get a project approved and permitted organizes natural supporters to carry the issue, works to neutralize or marginalize opponents whose efforts can damage the chances of approval, and stresses the benefits to the community not through a public relations or marketing program but through the citizen advocates organized for the purpose. Those advocates will express their support in their own words and from their own point of view, a much more effective approach than using a canned list of talking points.

Ardent supporters will also sway others who know and respect them—relatives, neighbors, co-workers, friends—will deter those who might have reservations about the project but don’t want to offend a neighbor or old friend, and can dissuade, neutralize or turn at least some opponents because they clearly speak from their own viewpoint and not as agents of the developer. Make sure your group has a Web site and email address so that people tempted to support your project can easily join up.

Once it has a leader, the group can begin engaging in political support activities, forming coalitions with other groups, calling public officials to express support, writing letters to the editor, managing a website, starting a blog, printing flyers, and attending meetings and hearings, for example. They can also hold fundraisers and seek donations to offset their expenses, and stage a site cleanup to dramatize the improvement your project will bring to the area. One particularly effective activity is the citizen petition drive, in which your group members collect signatures of local voters who favor the project, or at least are not opposed to it. A stack of signed citizen petitions makes a nice prop for your lawyer to present to the licensing authority at the big hearing to bolster your claim of widespread public support.

Robert J. Flavell is vice chairman of The Saint Consulting Group, email flavell@tscg.biz