Differences between offense and defense land use politics campaigns

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(Editor’s Note: This latest installment from NIMBY Wars: The Politics of Land Use, sets out some of the differences between offense and defense in land use politics campaigns – such campaigns each mobilise local citizens but for different purposes and require different strategies and tactics)

By P. Michael Saint, Robert J. Flavell and Patrick F. Fox

A land use politics offense campaign is a political campaign that empowers and invigorates local citizens to support a project they favor in ways that effectively influence land use decisions by their local officials. A land use politics defense campaign is a political campaign that empowers and invigorates local citizens to oppose a project they disfavor in ways that effectively influence land use decisions by local officials.

While these two definitions may seem the same, except that citizens provide support in one campaign and opposition in the other, the political campaign techniques employed in offense and defense campaigns are not the same. This chapter discusses the distinct approaches that the Saint Consulting Group uses for offense and defense campaigns. One thing is true of both offense and defense campaigns: the first principle of land use politics is that preparation is indispensable.

It bears repeating that learning about the community and its political and demographic makeup, town history, government, civic leaders, local issues, and attitudes toward development are all vital elements in the campaign manager’s preparation for developing a successful political campaign strategy.
Preparing an Offense Campaign

For an offense campaign, self-education on the project site is vital: its history, background, and abutting and surrounding land uses; its geography and prior uses; environmental and neighborhood issues; and less obvious matters that could become issues. Does the parcel have historic, nostalgic, emotional, or symbolic importance in the community? Do neighbors use the site for community activities or sports, or does it serve as a shortcut for walkers or motorists, or a spillover parking lot for the local church? Do the neighbors have flooded yards because the site discharges runoff? Does the site serve as a buffer between the residential neighbors and a nearby noisy or noxious use?Only a firsthand site inspection and chats with neighbors andother locals can bring these kinds of issues to the surface early on, so they can be addressed at the outset and not at some later crucial moment. Similarly, only an investigation at town hall will reveal the zoning district, applicable overlay districts, nature of zoning relief that may be needed, tax category and status, as well as proximity of infrastructure services such as water and sewer and information on previous attempts to develop the site and why they failed. And only an effort to reach out to local citizens and neighbors will give a hint of political obstacles, challenges, and issues that might arise unseen.

Saint Consulting management considers this preparatory stage so important that it employs an extensive scope report form that requires project managers to fill in answers to dozens of questions not only concerning their observations and investigation, but also their impressions and suspicions. It forces project managers to stay alert and think critically and in specific detail about the political campaigns ahead and the elements that will be needed for success.

Everyone has an agenda, whether they realize it or not, and in the modern age, everyone is a stakeholder, whether they have legal standing or not. Gently extracting information from civic leaders, citizens, abutters, and stakeholders will help the campaign manager learn what truly motivates supporters and opponents of the project and what might be their true agendas. It also provides hints of the issues or strategies that might change minds or influence public and official opinion.

Writing the Offense Campaign Plan

Once the research is completed, the project manager writes his scope report, including all of the information and impressions he gathered in his study and recorded on his scope report form, and begins fashioning a rough campaign strategy. Important at this stage is his understanding of the client’s timeline, goals, budget, and other matters outlined earlier, since these will influence the approach he takes and the campaign elements, strategies, and tactics he recommends. Writing the report is excellent preparation for writing the campaign plan. It focuses the mind on the issues and problems that the research identified, and it allows the manager to analyze problems and begin considering strategies and tactics to address them. Plans, backup plans, alternatives, and options all go into the scope report, together with the project manager’s recommended strategies and tactics for each problem, issue, and obstacle, and his reasoning for selecting those options. This exercise is well worth the effort because the resulting detailed report will serve as the scaffolding for the campaign plan. It will also give the client a preview of the political problems and issues to be faced, and methods to effectively neutralize or reverse them. Before finalizing the scope report, the project manager submits it to his regional manager for a vetting, and to Saint’s chief communications director for any needed editing.

Everybody at an operations management level at Saint started out as a project manager, so the more senior a manager, the deeper the experience and streetwise advice he or she can provide, and the better able he or she is to judge the quality of the scope report and proposed strategies. The vetting process allows senior managers to make sure the client is getting what he needs, as well as affording them an opportunity to fine-tune the approach. Once the vetting is complete, the project manager has a strong sense of the proper direction and is ready to draft his campaign plan. The client, meanwhile, receives a copy of the final scope report so he has an opportunity to discuss it, comment on problems or issues he considers pressing, and provide insight into any special information or intelligence he may have received. The campaign plan is as detailed and comprehensive a political campaign program as is possible at this stage. It includes strategies, contingency plans, and tactics; identifies resource needs and a timeline; and presents a clear program of action, together with time commitments, budgets, and expense estimates.The campaign scoping and budget process may seem like a long,convoluted affair that might take weeks or months of preparation. But through long experience and efficient management, Saint is able to perform the scope investigation; get the scope report written, vetted, and submitted; and construct a campaign program of exceptional quality and effectiveness in just a few days. Once the client has given the okay to proceed, the project team is usually on the ground in the community within 24 hours. Saint managers have learned from personal experience that immediate and reliable support from headquarters can make all the difference in avoiding a campaign disaster. So the company maintains a robust research and support department that can get answers and produce results instantly for operatives in the field. This backup, which includes the ability to produce color maps and charts — such as red-dot maps showing where in a politician’s district project supporters live — as well as reports and documents, is a powerful tool when the going gets rough. It also avoids showing the client’s hand at the local Kinko’s, where the kid running the printer probably lives in town and is likely to be curious, if nothing else, about what the documents and flyers mean, why the maps show all the red dots, and who is planning the big development.

Nimby Wars was released last October and is available at the following fine booksellers:

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