Is a competitor backing angry neighbors against your development?

The Saint ReportPlanning and Zoning, Property Development, Retail, Saint Consulting Links, saintblog2 Comments

By Patrick Fox,
President, The Saint Consulting Group, and staff

angry neighborsAre your opponents really just angry neighbors? Is that opposition group with two lawyers, a traffic expert and funds for full page newspaper ads really just a few guys from the neighborhood? Often the neighbors are being enflamed, organized, trained and funded by your competitors.

The chief reason that your competitors will use strategic opposition is that it’s difficult to detect, and therefore difficult to defend against. If you can’t find your enemy, it’s hard to know where to aim.

Strategic opposition is done sub rosa, by indirection. Like a clever politician, your competitor will maintain deniability, and to prevent anyone from figuring out who knew what and who did what, and when. Your competitor will insulate himself from guilt by using layers of agents, underlings and provocateurs. He’ll issue his orders to an agent, who will convey instructions on a need-to-know basis to a field operative, who will meet with (or perhaps chair) the citizens’ group.

So your competitor may finance the citizens’ group, but you’ll never see him attend a meeting or make a statement. Accused at town meeting, he will not respond. Confronted by the press, he will plead ignorance.

But it isn’t necessary for you to be able to prove he’s behind the opposition. It’s enough that you see the signs, smell a rat, and prepare your defense accordingly

ratIn most cases, it should be easy for you to identify a list of suspects. Who is your nearest competitor? Who has plans for a store in the same area? Who has the most to lose if your store is built?

Once you know whom to suspect, it will be easier to learn how to identify their agents.

How do you know that strategic opposition is at work against your project in the first place? Here are some telltale signs:

1. A new, aggressive citizens’ group forms with the singular purpose of defeating your project (even though you have been meeting with neighbors).
2. Your cordial relations with public officials suddenly, and inexplicably, turn cold.
3. An abutting local business not in competition with you begins finding reasons to oppose your project. (This may mean your competitor has hired the used car dealer to use his abutter status against you; or has an option to buy the dealer’s land if your project fails).
4. Average blue-collar citizens begin spouting sophisticated arguments against your project. (Better yet, they turn up with index cards and read their arguments aloud.)
5. People who live on the other side of town (or out of town) turn up in opposition to your project.
6. You are attacked by a sudden series of letters to the editor in the local paper.
7. The citizens’ group begins buying newspaper ads costing hundreds of dollars, with no apparent signs of fundraising activity.
8. People whom you can identify as working for your competitor attend hearings to oppose your project.
9. The citizens group demands mitigation and/or linkage far beyond reason, and far above anything they would concoct on their own.
10. People who have no apparent reason to be interested in your project begin circulating petitions opposing it.
11. The citizens’ group hires a traffic engineer to dispute your study; or pays an environmental consultant to view your property.
12. Your opponents are unusually well informed and organized.
13. The citizens’ group turns up at public hearings with a lawyer.
14. Every time you agree to a request made by the citizens group, it changes its demands, making them harder to accept.
15. You learn that someone has been doing a telephone poll on your project.

Patrick Fox is president of The Saint Consulting Group, email:, phone 781 836 4163

2 Comments on “Is a competitor backing angry neighbors against your development?”

  1. Spot a rat? Maybe look in the mirror.

    This type of post is the ultimate in misdirection and hypocrisy. Saint has made a hefty living off playing both sides.

    In a Venture Nashville Connection’s profile of Michael Saint your firm is described as helping to thwart competitor’s projects.

    A Sioux City Journal article describes Saint Consulting as a firm specializing in helping big businesses keep competitors out of their market.

    There is nothing wrong with firms that only help concerned neighbors fight something they think is wrong for their community, just like there is nothing wrong with firms that only help developers tell the positive story of their project. There is something wrong with playing both sides.

    Would I trust you to site my wind farm if I knew you might use what you learned to fight another one of my projects?

    Would I want to give you access to proprietary information and databases to help get an approval for my hospital if you would help a competitor stop me when I site a new hospital?

    Would I want you to help with a commercial development when you have organized people to kill a Wal-Mart?

    The answer to all of the above is NO.

    There is a reason you can’t be a defense attorney and a prosecutor.

    You can’t run campaigns for Democrats and Republicans

    And can’t be a Yankee and Red Sox fan

    It just doesn’t work that way.

    Thanks for this handy guide on spotting a rat. It is helping already.

  2. Jason,

    Thank you for your comments. The points you bring up are frequent misconceptions about what we do.
    We never under any circumstances work both sides of a project. To do so would be completely unethical. We have been in business serving international clients that include Fortune 100 companies since 1983 and our success would not be possible if we ever violated the trust of our clients in that way.

    We are members of the Association of Management Consulting Firms (AMCF) in the US and the Management Consultancies Association (MCA) in the United Kingdom and we strictly adhere to the ethical code of both organizations. AMCF Code of Ethics is here . The MCA Code of Conduct is here .

    We are also very careful when determining the clients for whom we will work. We are interested only in working for serious and responsible developers with a history of success. These clients have a vested interest in making sure that their projects benefit and enhance the community. They understand that responsible development is not only the right thing to do, it is also cost effective in the long term. Broken promises, unhappy neighbors and angry local officials on projects past will haunt attempts to gain permissions for all future projects. The days when developers could sneak projects through in the heat of summer or around the holidays are long gone and the process today requires real outreach to citizens and real community support.

    We do indeed help some of our clients defend their market share. It is a highly competitive market and a competitor locating directly across the street can have a devastating impact on some clients. Hospitals, aggregate quarries and large retail developments fight for market share when an area can reasonably support just one. Casinos, oil refineries, power plants and other large scale projects are extraordinarily difficult to site and have very special requirements. In a competitive approval process, educating neighbors on the benefits of one plan and the negatives of another actually benefits the community and the planning process.

    The case you make that you “can’t be a defense attorney and a prosecutor” or run campaigns for “Democrats and Republicans” or “be a Yankee and Red Sox fan” cynically assumes that there is never a right or wrong- there is no smart development as opposed to bad development. We work for good developers and we work hard to make their projects better. We have rejected clients and projects that we did not think were reasonable or responsible.

    When one of our client’s competitors decides to try to open up across the street, we will review the plan and point out potential problems and we will work with neighbors who want to protect their neighborhood by opposing it. Often the work we do on these projects is gratifying because we are helping residents fight ill conceived projects where there has been no neighborhood outreach and no consideration of community needs. Some developers still think they can just sneak it in or cut a back room deal for approvals and we enjoy working with neighbors to make sure that kind of development doesn’t work anymore.

    We are very proud of the work we do and our unrivaled track record winning for our clients.

    Patrick Fox


    The Saint Consulting Group

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