Enduring lesson from 1980s – political tactics, not marketing, win land use fights

The Saint ReportNIMBY, Planning and Zoning, saintblog, Thought Leadership

By P. Michael Saint
Chairman and CEO, The Saint Consulting Group

When I worked on my first land use political battle in Massachusetts in 1984, the developer wanted to tout his project’s features and benefits.

“It’s going to have Italian granite facades and a wonderful architectural design with an atrium in the middle of the building,” he said. “And it will generate new taxes and 9 to 5 jobs.”
Most developers and their marketing and public relations consultants take this approach. They try to secure required local government approvals by “selling” features and benefits. Sadly for them, the neighbors – those most apt to object to a new real estate development project and those with the most political power to stop it – are unimpressed with this approach.

To the NIMBYs, it is not what features or benefits does the project have, but what negative impacts will it have on the neighborhood. Will it cause pollution, create traffic jams, attract crime, hurt the environment, or negatively impact home values?

These neighbor concerns cannot be answered by harping on features and benefits. In fact, some developer messages may raise, not lower the fears of the NIMBYs, and so not convince them to support a project.

For example, emphasizing the 300 new jobs the project will create may sound good to the developer, but only make the potential NIMBY worry more about all the new traffic those jobs will create on already overburdened streets.
Fearful residents become passionate opponents of projects. And that passion is easily translated into political action – signs, letters, petitions, phone calls and angry crowds at public meetings, — all tactics designed to pressure locally elected officials into denying permits to a project.

Fear is an emotion and must be dealt with accordingly. “Features and benefits” are fact-based arguments that appeal to the intellect and have little sway in an emotional, political debate.
And those local politicians are not convinced to approve a project based on developer marketing campaigns that highlight project features and benefits either.

Land use decisions made by locally elected officials, whether in London, England, London, Kentucky or London, Ontario, are political decisions – what political benefit or risk is there for the politician in approving this project? If the politician sees 300 local voters in the city hall demanding the project be denied, and three out-of-town businessmen in the hall arguing on behalf of their project, the local officials will always vote with the crowd.

Explaining how the project is energy friendly or designed by an award-winning architect will not win the approvals in the face of such emotional, political opposition.
Even when compelling, the feature and benefit approach does not turn out supporters for a project. And only by demonstrating that a project has political support that outnumbers opponents will a developer convince a politician to approve his project.
To win a political fight, the developer must use political tactics, not marketing approaches that are designed to sell toothpaste.

P. Michael Saint is chairman and CEO of The Saint Consulting Group, email: msaint@tscg.biz