What is Land Use Politics

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From NIMBY Wars: The Politics of Land Use

NIMBY WarsBy P. Michael Saint, Chairman and CEO &
Patrick Fox, President, The Saint Consulting Group

Land use politics is a completely new discipline, different from the old-fashioned ward-heeler fixer regime. While it might use public relations elements, it is a far cry from the sort of press release approach to project approval that PR employs. Land use political consultants make no effort to peddle influence or to waste time trying to educate people who resolutely oppose a project. They do not treat the public as a market to whom they sell the project, and they do not harp on the developer’s vision of the benefits that the project will bring the community.

 Instead, practitioners of land use politics practice politics—the process by which citizens decide who gets what. Although most people understand politics as the system by which we select public officials to speak for us at City Hall, the State House, Congress, or Parliament, true politics doesn’t stop at formal elections. Everything a government does, every decision it makes at any level, is steeped in politics; in the process, the government decides who gets what.

In a representative form of government, officials are empowered to act on behalf of their constituents. There has long been a spirited debate between those who see representative democracy as a mere extension of pure democracy and those who think it is a new animal altogether. On one side are people who believe that elected representatives should vote as their constituents want because they speak on the constituents’ behalf—that their actions should reflect the will of the people. On the other side are people who think that elected public officials owe a duty to do what’s best, in their judgment, for their constituents, even if that decision is unpopular at the moment.

At higher levels of government, this debate is largely academic, since a public official who represents 50,000 people, or 500,000, or 5,000,000 hardly needs to worry if a few hundred or even a few thousand strongly disagree with his decision on a particular issue. The vast majority of them will agree with him on other issues and his politically astute staff will be certain to put the best possible spin on his controversial votes and decisions to limit their adverse impact. He may lose the votes of a few die-hards on a “third-rail” issue, but most of those voters will return to the fold when they consider the incumbent’s history of public service against the credentials and campaign platforms of challengers.

At the local level, however, the elected officials and the voters who elect and reelect them are so close and personal, and the numbers so small, that representative government can be influenced, even controlled, through application of direct democracy by a relatively few voters. A small crowd of angry voters, even if they are not necessarily perceived as representing a majority view, can be effective if the public official believes that other voters would agree with the protestors if goaded into action and might endanger his reelection. In the case of development proposals, change is usually perceived as bad, so building nothing is politically safer than building something. The status quo is usually best for reelection, so voting against a project is generally easier than voting for one.

The political approach to project approval gives both the proposal and the developer credibility and a degree of popular support because it employs citizen-soldiers to carry the message. Once they are psychologically committed to the cause, these citizens will influence others and bring them aboard. The organization and management of citizen support groups is the key to land use politics because it creates an aura of popularity and approval. It also undermines and helps short-circuit opposition efforts to treat the developer as an unwelcome outsider inflicting a monstrosity on the town. If this effort is properly handled, opponents will find themselves unable to establish a convincing local chauvinism—us against them—since the “them” contingent includes their own neighbors.

The political approach also helps equalize the battle by providing a voice to citizens who might otherwise be intimidated into silence by the attitude or bullying of people who take a contrary view of the issues. Giving voice to the minority view—which can be built into the perception of being the majority or consensus view—establishes legitimacy in the minds of local officials. Politicians realize that there are two sides to the matter and that they cannot simply adopt the view of the squeakiest wheel.

The political approach is also focused on what is important and avoids what is not. For example, the political approach focuses on how we can get the votes we need for approval (or rejection). The community consensus approach generates issues by asking citizens for their ideas, criticisms, and suggestions for improving the project proposal. The public relations approach assumes that people need more information and fills their mailboxes, but does nothing to galvanize action. At best, it neutralizes people who didn’t care very much in the first place. And the marketing approach treats citizens as customers or buyers, to be sold on project benefits but not spurred into any kind of action to encourage project approval.

The political approach also provides a setting in which the development team can succeed. Instead of walking into a hornet’s nest of vilification at the public hearing, the team finds friendly faces and hears friendly voices testifying in favor of the project. Although opponents have a voice as well, the perception of a balanced crowd will make the board members reluctant to dismiss the project out of hand, and where the developer’s land use consultant has packed the hall with supporters, the development team might be seen as speaking for the majority of citizens, the consensus, in the community. The mere presence of support to offset the customary antidevelopment sentiment of crowds at public hearings will surprise and unnerve opponents and get the attention of the public officials. This affords the development team a chance to make its presentation in a professional and compelling manner, rather than under the censorious groans and exclamations of a clearly hostile crowd.

The political approach also has significant political value. Because it organizes citizens and rouses them to express their views, it is politically effective in putting politicians on the hot seat—creating the predicament of voting against their constituents’ expressed wishes. Because it uses a political campaign approach that organizes public support, generates an inference of consensus, and identifies and addresses issues, it is effective in providing public officials with validation, or political cover, to justify their votes in favor of approval. This political cover is highly valuable, even essential, on several levels: it provides the politician with shelter from opponent attacks; it provides a shield for use in the run-up to the next election; it provides an opportunity to take credit if the project succeeds and proves popular; and it provides an excuse to blame implementation if the project fails or proves unpopular.

The political approach also avoids litigation, a very expensive, time-consuming, and usually unsuccessful method of resolving permitting problems. The legal appeals process, for example, requires the complaining (appealing) party to exhaust all administrative remedies before filing a legal action. This means first appealing within the permitting system, applying for administrative review, passing through each level of the government hierarchy, dealing with agencies and bureaucracies and their agenda-driven staffers, and meeting all of the various filing and deadline requirements at each level and with each entity. This costly and protracted process is exacerbated where environmental issues are involved because they invoke an entirely different panoply of agencies, statutes, and regulatory schemes, each with its own requirements.

Mike Saint is chairman and CEO of The Saint Consulting Group, email: msaint@tscg.biz.
Patrick Fox is president of The Saint Consulting Group, email: