How to prepare for packed crowd at planning council – view from the field

The Saint ReportNIMBY, Planning and Zoning, saintblogLeave a Comment

(Saint Consulting project managers use their political campaign experience to go into neighborhoods and identify support and opposition to our clients’ development proposals. Here is an account that could take place at any planning and zoning committee hearing with one of our project managers.) 

By Saint Consulting Group Staff

councilGreetings from a packed Planning and Zoning Committee meeting in a suburb of a major Midwest city. I’m here tonight with my client to formally submit our application for an 80,000 sq. ft. grocery store adjacent to a residential neighborhood.  Interest in our re-use project is high, and the Chairwoman remarks about tonight’s turnout must be due to residents wanting to see our project for the first time. Luckily for my client, this isn’t the first time the neighbors are seeing the project.
Our client hired us three months ago to get out in front of the process.  Armed with a draft sketch of our project, we attempted to meet with every neighbor to solicit their input and share our vision for the project. We started with direct abutters, and worked outward in concentric circles from there.  We weren’t able to speak directly with every neighbor, but we did meet with a majority of them.  Many support our project, and we were able to turn them out to tonight’s hearing.
And while some neighbors closer to the site have concerns about traffic and buffering, they are pleased we took the time to meet with them kitchen table to kitchen table. Some even positively remarked on our approach when addressing the P&Z Committee.
During my outreach, I was able to answer (or get back to them with an answer to) most questions residents raised.  However, I identified five residents who still had concerns about the project and would likely speak against the project tonight.  In advance of this meeting, I had my client’s VP of Real Estate meet with several of the neighbors, and we scheduled a sit-down meeting with three neighbors and our traffic engineer to discuss traffic improvements, flow, and mitigation.  Going the extra mile in advance of this meeting was critical.  Only two of the identified opponents stood to speak, and even then, their comments were more an indictment of the overall traffic situation in this part of town than a rebuke of our project.
Most interestingly, however, were the two opponents who rose to speak against the project and identified themselves as living adjacent to the property.  I didn’t recognize them or their names, and quickly turned to my database and realized they were each landlords of properties next to the site.  They each spoke angrily of general concerns, but centered on the need for my client to pay them for lost property value.  They attempted to change the tone of the meeting and rile up the large crowd. At this point, a neighbor rose to point out these two men do not live in these properties, and began to defend my client and the neighborly way in which we’ve worked with the neighborhood.  The angry approach these men took backfired, and the neighborhood reacted by coming to our defense.  
There will be no vote tonight – as expected – this was the official start of the approval process.  But for our client, the approval process began a long time ago with individual meetings with the neighbors that are already paying dividends.

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