Cracking the DNA code for NIMBY generals – what makes a good opposition leader

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By Jay Vincent,
Senior Vice President, Energy, The Saint Consulting Group

meetingEven an unruly mob needs some direction, some cohesion and someone to corral members to stay on message to stop an unwanted development from coming to town. Especially in these tough economic times when projects translate to local jobs and economic development dollars. According to the 2009 Saint Index, resistance to development is still strong, but a bit less so due to tough financial times on residents and their local government. 59 percent of Americans say they are more likely to support new commercial projects in their hometown given the current economic situation, but one in three still responded that the best type of new development in town would be “none.”

Who’s the four-star general of the NIMBY group in town and what gets him or her up early in the morning to distribute flyers and stay up late testifying at local committee meetings? I asked my colleagues here what they felt drove the passions of opposition leaders. Based on 25 years of experience working with these personalities, here’s Saint Consulting’s top five characteristics of opposition group leaders. Understanding what drives them may be a key to unlocking their heart or learning whether you’re actually the source of their resistance:

1. Aspirations, political and personal. Perhaps the top trend in our ongoing research of opposition leaders, they end up on the dais in the next local election listening to citizens just like them. Opposing an unpopular development proposal in town may be one of the easiest roads to name recognition through the press and eventually a name on the ballot during the next cycle. If you had trouble dealing with them when they led the opposition, wait until they can vote on your project (if no one forces them to recuse themselves). Opposition leaders wake up with “fire in the belly.”

2. Righteousness, knowledge and commitment. And they’ll invest the time to annoy you and local officials. Lots of it. It’s either available or they manufacture it out of lost sleep, deferred wages and marital strife. If you have a project around the District of Columbia for instance, you could suffer from a trifecta – government employees with a set schedule (relatively speaking), perhaps the highest educational achievement of any census district in the country, and those who live and breathe politics by shear osmosis. When comprehensive plans, zoning ordinances and traffic studies become night table reading for your opponents, beware.

3. Cynicism, with an agenda or an axe to grind. Nearly seven in 10 Americans believe the relationship between developers and elected officials makes the land use process unfair. Add that to the fact most group leaders fighting development at a site may be doing it for reasons wholly apart from your project (from their taxes went up to the mayor’s kid gets more playing time than little Johnny), and it makes for a motivated activist. They may be looking to hit back based on previous history with the local council or board and looking to push a perception that elected officials are handing out approvals against the public interest.

4. Respect, a pillar of the community. Some of the best opposition group leaders garner respect instantly based on their tenure in the community, previous service as a public official or awareness in the community. Whether it’s a farmer who’s been working the fields his or her whole life, a retired elected official or the local preacher, residents flock to the effective group leader’s side without needing much of any persuasion. They’re respected and given the benefit of the doubt and seen as a sage in the community. At the end of the day, if they don’t want what you have to offer, no one else does. That’s why you have to understand who they are in the community first and get them on board.

5. Efficacy. Opposition leaders feel they can make a difference when the silent majority of residents believe time spent at hearings and in organizing meetings is futile. Where many feel there is no way their opinion matters, leaders of local groups taking a stake on a development fight enjoy hearing themselves speak on behalf of citizens. Their view is. if elected officials aren’t properly representing their constituents, they’ll gladly fill the void.

Jay Vincent is senior vice president for energy, The Saint Consulting Group, email, phone 312.970.5770 Ext: 7502

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