How land use political manager wins – using campaign techniques

The Saint ReportNIMBY, Politicians and Planning, saintblogLeave a Comment

(Editor’s Note: Having argued  for using professional land use managers to direct campaigns, this excerpt from NIMBY Wars explains how campaign techniques work and how land use political managers use them.)

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

A land use battle is a lot like any political fight: contenders try to convince the decision makers that one argument is superior to the other, or that one argument represents the majority view. Generally, there is a date certain on which a decision will be made, a concept less easy to pin down in the throes of meetings and hearings on zoning relief than the certainty of election day. Still, at some point there will be a vote, and the back-and-forth battle will become more intense the closer it gets to the decision day.

It is therefore essential that the land use political campaign manager be agile in thought and nimble in response, creative in selecting his political tools and imaginative in employing them. No matter how expert or how experienced the manager, it is seldom possible to know exactly when and how the other side will act, or whether the permitting board will postpone a key hearing after the manager has gone to great lengths to make sure the developer’s adherents will pack the hall. The manager must therefore use his head at all times, anticipating problems and preparing solutions and countermeasures.

To do this effectively, he must think in a free-form creative manner. No formulaic, cookie-cutter approach will do in handling a fluid, unpredictable, ever-sloshing political situation.

How does the land use political manager win the fight? She designs and works through a flexible political campaign that builds a support base by attracting people with a common interest in the project, including natural supporters, those who can be convinced, and those who would support the program if they understood what is in it for them. The land use politics approach uses true grassroots organizing: citizens organize, carry out a campaign, and bring the case to the public officials, to whom they speak on their own behalf, not as agents of the client. They achieve the goal by the influence of their forceful presentation and sheer numbers.

The land use political consultant assists in this effort by scoping the issues, designing the campaign, preparing strategies, organizing the citizens into an effective and cohesive force, and managing the citizen organization to make certain the members stay committed and focused and that the work gets done. Citizens might oppose a project but have no idea what to do about it. They may be willing to speak in public but have no idea of what to say or how to say it. They may be willing to write a letter to the editor but have no writing skills. Or they may want to hold a rally but not know how to attract a crowd, make signs and banners, force the mayor to attend, or secure press coverage.

In all these aspects, the land use political consultant assists by nurturing, writing scripts and speeches, teaching telephone technique, rehearsing the nervous, and reassuring the doubtful. Her experience really shows when it comes time for a quiet, unassuming local merchant to stand up to the big-box lawyers; it’s equally vital in keeping group members committed. Keeping them active and interested reduces the risk of their losing interest or becoming frustrated and going back to their daily lives. But it’s quite a challenge when development approvals can take many hearings and months to decide and modern citizens live at a hectic pace.

Besides building support, the land use political manager must deal with the opposition, winning over opponents where she can, neutralizing them with arguments that cast the project in a different light or calm their fears, or marginalizing them by demonstrating to public officials that they are simply unreasonable people who will never be satisfied with any solution. This is delicate work and requires the deft hand of experience to achieve the end without destructive, perhaps fatal, backlash.

In this, as in all other aspects of land use politics, it is street smarts — not theoretical knowledge — that wins the day. For example, “as-of-right permitting” is a reassuring phrase to those who believe it, but a street-smart political strategy can easily raise so many issues that as-of-right permitting is mostly a nonstarter for a controversial project. In one campaign in the eastern United States run by a Saint Consulting project manager, the client’s opponent had built a big-box store and had as-of-right status (including correct zoning and sufficient land) to add a large addition to expand it even further.

The project manager was able to organize citizens and raise so many issues that the addition was delayed for years, giving the client time to build the market share he needed to survive. Did the effort stop the addition? No; but victory is defined by the client, and he was very happy. He needed 18 months and got three years. (This example is reported in more detail as Defense Case 12 in Chapter 9.)

For biographical details on P. Michael Saint, Robert J. Flavell and Patrick F. Fox, click here) 

Nimby Wars was released on October 28th, and is available at the following fine booksellers


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