Direct citizen outreach avoids coziness claims in land use decisions

The Saint ReportPlanning and Zoning, saintblog, Wind Power0 Comments

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

NY Attorney General Andrew CuomoWind power companies that want to do business in New York have signed a code of ethics which State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo says will govern their operations and prohibit improper relations between wind power developers and local officials.

As this Business Review story illustrates, too cozy relationships and silver bullet answers to permitting approvals on a local land use matters can result in legal troubles, reputation hits, bad PR and, now, the need for ethics codes and formal monitoring of companies that are already above board.

Cuomo’s investigation into allegations that wind developers paid local officials to approve their energy projects moved into the state of Vermont this week, as the Rutland Herald reports.

Let’s face it, most codes and pledges (my personal favorites are “no new tax” pledges) are for political purposes, for political leaders to demonstrate how much their “cleaning up” of government or making sure business is not working the system at the public’s expense.

One could see the signing of the code of ethics as a proactive effort by the wind industry declaring their integrity in local land use dealings or as a must-have defensive tactic based on bad behavior in the past by a couple entities or individuals. My experience with wind companies’ approach to seeking land use approvals is that they are very ethical and go above and beyond the call of duty, at times to a fault.  Some even stop short of playing the politics right to avoid the perception of using it to their advantage.

With the Cuomo ethics pledge and the NJ corruption charges as backdrop (sorry couldn’t resist giving a shout out to my home state), it’s worth noting that the best strategy to pay appropriate homage to local politics, receive your local entitlement permits on a wind farm or the like and “do the right thing” is direct citizen outreach with local residents.  Many energy companies, wind and otherwise already do this.  They host public meetings, send out direct mail educating residents about their project, and are very invested in landowner and stakeholder relationships and outreach.

But from a political perspective with permitting goals in mind, it shouldn’t stop there.  Just because locals feel pleased about your efforts to educate them and they come to trust you, that doesn’t mean they’ll actually show up on a wintry night in upstate NY to tell their local elected reps that.  The vocal opposition will, no matter what the weather.  It’s the push of those supporters you’ve gathered along the way to communicate to decision-makers and show up at public hearings that rewards you for building relationships with citizens, mitigating problems and not seeking short cuts to a positive vote.

At the end of the day, with a few exceptions that eventually end up in legal trouble, political decision-makers care more about political capital banked in votes at the next election than any financial capital possibly reaped from the project.  If you bring them the votes in a majority of people showing up to support your project, chances are you’ve got it.

There’s nothing wrong with doing the right thing, publicly and politically, to avoid a wrong decision on your permit application.

Jay Vincent is senior vice president for energy, The Saint Consulting Group, email vincent@tscg.biz, phone 312.970.5770 Ext: 7502

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