Key Emerging Trends in Land Use Politics – from Master Planning to Social Media

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

Now that we at Saint Consulting Group have been running and winning land use political campaigns for 27 years, we can point to a number of trends that have emerged. I recently got the chance to outline seven major trends in land use politics I have noticed, when I spoke to a group of public affairs professionals from a major oil and gas company.

1)     Increased government regulation. As time has passed, local officials, pushed by various special interests and NIMBY’s, and trying to control sprawl, require “smart growth” and address unintended consequences from older regulations, have passed more and more laws and regulations relating to what can built, where, when, how and why.
2)     Linked to the increased government intervention and micromanaging, has been growing citizen opposition. Our own “Saint Index”, an annual poll of 1000 Americans on views toward land use, shows 74% of Americans want nothing new built in their communities. This attitude towards new projects has translated into a growing number of cases where local residents march on city hall demanding that some new development be block by elected officials or that new laws, regulations or building moratoriums be implemented.
3)     The emergence of special interests, who actively lobby against development. There are environmentalists of all types, preservationists, and those who advocate for smart growth, new urbanism, mass transit, affordable housing, and other causes. Their advocacy does not stay at home and they can easily travel across the state or even across the country to lobby officials to enforce their vision.
4)     Master planning. A growing number of cities are staffing their planning offices with folks who have bought into the idea that cities, and not the market, can and should control where things are built and how they will be designed. An overlay of urban growth boundaries, preservation districts, coastal zones, and master planned communities, is added to more stringent zoning and building codes, greatly limiting what can built without majority votes by the local city council.
5)     A growing abdication of political responsibility. Politicians hate to be criticized for making land use decisions. With increasing resistance to new development and a more politically active citizenry, the politicians can’t help but take increasing flack no matter how they decide. So to give themselves cover, more elected officials are setting up appointed neighborhood advisory committees (NAC) and charging them with negotiating with the developers. If the NAC vetoes the project, the elected official simply says it was the neighbors and not the council who made the decision. In other cases, more and more councils are saying, “let the people decide” the controversial land use matters by putting the measure on the ballot for a referendum vote. Again, no matter who wins, the politician can claim it was not his fault, even if the referendum or initiative petition creates unintended and undesired consequences later.
6)     The advent of non-NIMBY land use opponents. While it is fashionable to characterize most opposition to land development as Not In My Backyard, other groups have emerged who try to get councils to say “no”. There are many advocating their own cause, as noted in #3 above who show up to lobby against land use permits.. Also labor unions will sometimes fiercely oppose non-union construction jobs, or non-union hospitals or non-union retailers. And competitors will also get into the act, with shopping center operators, supermarket companies, miners and others whose business depends on customers from a specific geographic location, finding it more financially rewarding to contribute to stopping an incoming competitor than to take the profit hit when a new competitor opens. The distinction among the kinds of opponents is important. While “win, win” mutual gains compromises can work with the classic NIMBY, they are useless, if not completely counter-productive approaches, when the opponents have an economic or philosophical reason to block the development.
7)     The use of the Internet to arm the opposition. These days NIMBY’s and others can quickly “Google” to find everything they need to know about a company that wants land use permits – where they have been blocked before, who will fight them, campaign strategies that work, and mistakes the proponents have made in running their businesses (i.e. environmental or labor suits or citations.) They are also using e-mail, web pages, Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, and other Social media and new technology to create opposition campaigns and organize opponents to put pressure on city hall.
I got the chance to attend the Urban Land Institute meeting in Phoenix and the International Council of Shopping Centers ReCon conference in Las Vegas in May. The mood of each was more optimistic than in the last couple of years and several shopping center owners confided that leasing activity was up greatly over last year with more retailers stepping up.
A couple of distressing notes: An economist speaking at ULI predicted that the economy in Phoenix will not recover until at least 2015. An insurance executive cautioned that world wide losses from major natural disasters so far this year are pushing the industry to its limits and major building liability insurance rate premium hikes will be coming soon.

P. Michael Saint is chairman and CEO of The Saint Consulting Group, email

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