Getting people to say “yes” to landfills, getting your project approved – a guide to land use politics

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(This article is based on a presentation which Jesse McKnight and Javon Smith gave to the Waste Expo in Dallas last month.)

By Jesse McKnight and Javon Smith, The Saint Consulting Group

Most Americans oppose development – it changes the community and can threaten property values. And your neighbors now know, after years of fighting big box retailers, waste treatment plants and new housing projects that they can say “no” to developers and city hall.

Three out of four Americans consider themselves NIMBY – Not In My Back Yard opponents of development. Landfills and waste treatment top the list of what they oppose the most. Yet, land use politics can be a practical, achievable way to get people to say yes and to win planning applications.

The landfill industry should sit up and take notice, because without pro-active steps to identify and unlock latent community support for their plans, many projects will be hijacked by the opposition and get mired in years of expensive delays.

This article explains how land use politics applies political and grassroots methods to win complex permits, how and why public opinion has become more opposed to new development, how to frame strategies through political due diligence and an advocacy pyramid to get to “yes”. We conclude with a Saint Model Outcome, or case study, to illustrate how – in a country where all politics is local and where all planning is political – land use politics can work for you.

Our focus on the politics of planning began in 1983 when P. Michael Saint founded The Saint Consulting Group. We have shaped land use politics with political and grassroots methods to win complex permits. We have won 90 percent of our client engagements in over 1,500 projects in 44 states, the United Kingdom and Canada – in both offense campaigns to win permits and defense campaigns to protect our clients’ property assets across a variety of industries. We have six offices across the United States, one office in London and one in Berlin.

The current US political climate is strongly anti-development. We know this thanks to the Saint Index, which quantifies attitudes towards real estate development. Since 2005 this unique survey annually examines active support and opposition, and how Americans feel about certain types of development if they are proposed in their community.

Designed with the UMass Center for Economic and Civic Opinion, the Saint Index qualifies opposition to development, who opposes and who supports, and we put together demographics for our clients to help them get their project approvals.

Here are some key findings from the 2010 Saint Index:

  • One in four adults or a family member actively opposed a project in the past year
  • Twice as many actively opposed than actively supported a development project
  • Asked what type of development would they like to see in their community, one in three answered “none” – the most frequent answer by far
  • Landfills are most opposed, followed by casinos and quarries.

Why do people fight development projects?

  • 31% protect community character
  • 22% protect environment
  • 21% traffic
  • 10% protect real estate values
  • Fear of the unknown.

The main reasons why people actively support development are: 36% for community improvement and 23% to improve the economy or tax base

A quick look at the demographics shows that the most likely landfill opponents are:

  • Female
  • Aged 36-45 or 56-65
  • Post-Graduate Education
  • Household Income $50K-$99K
  • Live in a Suburban Area
  • Live in Mid-Atlantic

The most likely landfill supporters are:

  • Male
  • Rent their Home
  • HS Diploma or Two-Year Degree
  • Household Income $35K-$49K
  • Live in an Urban or Rural Area
  • Live in Midwest

Facing the wrath of these NIMBYs are local decision makers, elected officials who by their nature have to make political decisions. Political decisions require political cover, or the politician is hanging out on a limb that his opponents will cut down. Developers can make a huge difference to provide political cover for the decision makers – by rallying vocal constituents to speak out in favor of the project.

The Saint Index also found many ways that opponents actively oppose a project:

  • Organizing opposition groups
  • Pressuring elected officials
  • Signing and gathering petitions
  • Attending and speaking at hearings
  • Fundraising
  • Signs and letters
  • Hiring attorneys and experts
  • Personal attacks, negativity, cynicism

With landfills topping the list of opposed projects, the waste industry must recognize and respond to the fears that are driving opponents. NIMBYs are afraid of change, their fear leads to passion, and passion leads to political action.

Conversely, active support is far less apparent than active opposition. Supporters tend to be intellectually in favor of a project, but without the passion or motivation for political action.

Just as every political campaign is different, there is no set way to counter the opposition. We have found that political due diligence, the groundwork any campaign first must undertake, can reveal how developers can identify and mobilize their support in a community.

The Scope Report

Our first job for a client project is to produce a Scope Report to frame the campaign strategy and tactics with essential due diligence – research into a community and relevant issues to:

  • Identify stakeholders and opinion leaders
  • Determine pressure points
  • Independent verification of public officials’ positions
  • Design a campaign plan to win

Our Scope Reports act as a roadmap of political and community issues that influence citizens, agency staff, and elected officials. We research local issues, community organizations, environmental groups, landowner and resident associations, potential advocates and opponents, opportunities to develop and gain support, and political/community land mines that will impede your progress and influence future permitting decisions. Our Scope Reports assess the political structure in each community, with a complete stakeholder map and examination of pressure points in the public and regulatory approval processes.

With so much opposition to landfills, a comprehensive strategic outreach and communications plan is needed that reflects political realities, stakeholder groups, anticipated opposition and their impact on the permit approval process.

The Advocacy Pyramid

The path to winning community support is not as difficult as it may seem. Reach out and you find a wide range of people, from those who are unaware all the way up to those who are committed to support you. We call this an advocacy pyramid. To win their support, you have to get out early, understand the needs of the community and leverage support to show what you and your project can offer.

The advocacy pyramid is the framework for understanding people and moving them up the scale from unaware to vocal support. This is how you get to ‘Yes’. We categorize  people along a Value and Quantity scale. The higher up the pyramid, the more valuable these people are to your campaign; the wider the category, the more people are in that pool.

At the base of the pyramid are people who are:

  • Unaware – no basis for judgment, may be apathetic, uninformed or oblivious
  • Undecided – not sure what side they’re on yet, need more info and time
  • Receptive – have not decided but want to gather more info and make a decision. These people are weak and vulnerable and need your help, can be easily persuaded by either side
  • Quietly supportive, have gotten facts, support, but are not vocal
  • Openly supportive– will vote, and explain to others why they support. Might do a lawn sign, LTE, video petition
  • Vocal advocate—speak at city hall, call friends and neighbors, video petition, call elected official, and convince opponents to switch sides.

Where are the NIMBYs? You won’t find them in the advocacy pyramid because trying to convert opponents is a waste of time and resources. You can’t ignore them, but your campaign is much better served focusing on people you CAN convert.

In our land use campaigns, we have two goals – move the unawares to vocal advocates, and turn them out. However, even with information and time, some unaware or undecided people just aren’t going to care enough to pick a side.

Those who are receptive need your help – protect them from the lies and nefarious aims of the opposition. Give them information and persuade them.

Remember, this is a numbers game. The party with the overwhelming support at their back will carry the day.

Saint Model Outcome

Let’s look at this approach as a case study – what we call a Saint Model Outcome.

Our client wants to expand an existing landfill. They have been a good corporate citizen for the past 25 years (sponsoring a Little League, making donations to environmental groups), and the expansion will add substantial dollars to the local municipal tax base.

Like any landfill siting, the project faces common concerns: odor and noise, truck traffic, property values, project need, aesthetics, groundwater pollution.

Our client’s application is opposed by group of 20 neighbors; the next closest landfill is 30 miles away and the largest employer in the county is also biggest user of landfill.

How do we address these issues effectively?  We have to get out the facts about concerns, and also work to demonstrate projects benefits. We need to uncover the likely allies and their reasons for support.

With this landfill campaign, we want to move people up the advocacy pyramid and decided how much effort to spend PER PERSON in each category. Spend very little energy per person on the bottom – use mass communications, low-context communications – and a lot of energy for the people on the top – face to face conversations, high-context communications.

In all of our communications, presentations and materials, we provide the information that a person who WANTS to move up – one level or more – can use to do so. Each flyer, letter, or email out to the base of the pyramid makes it very clear how someone can HELP support the cause.

The Virtuous Cycle

Moving people up the pyramid brings us to the Virtuous Cycle – the more information we give them, the more they can effect change, and this is how we persuade people to become more openly supportive.

We want to control the debate and drive the message. For our landfill client, we flood the target community with our message, pumping traffic into the lower half of the pyramid. We also run an initial  voter ID program to identify as many possible and actual supporters as we can.
Then, our person-to-person outreach begins in earnest. We encourage and empower our quiet supporters – they CAN effect change, they have a right to do so, they have a voice and they should feel encouraged to use it. We want to move them up to openly supportive.

We assist  supportive residents by giving them more information, more facts, more talking points, more understanding. We motivate them to talk to their friends and relatives, to try to take some active support steps – calls to politicians, sign a petition, do a video petition or write a letter to the editor.

Vocal Advocates should be engaged regularly; leverage this group by taking advantage of their vested interests, and guide them to support and motivate, encourage and empower our supporters, and further spread our message. At the action step – a city council hearing or a vote – they help us carry the message and add their weight to the effort. Finally, we maintain the relationship with them, to improve our grassroots advocacy process for the next time, and then use these vocal advocates to help us start our next effort – either by helping with additional sites, or by acting as brand ambassadors and testimonials.

In our Model Outcome, a true case study, we focused our efforts and scarce resources where they were put to best use–moving people up the pyramid. The strategy involves hard work and organization, but when you get out early, understand the needs of the community, and leverage support to demonstrate what you can bring to the community, you can successfully encourage the community and elected officials to say “Yes” to your project.

Jesse McKnight is executive vice president and Javon Smith is West Coast division manager for The Saint Consulting Group. Email and . Further details at

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