All land use is political, writes Pat Fox, president of The Saint Consulting Group, transforming the way commercial land use projects get built and forcing developers to change how they do business.
Commercial development was once welcomed. Called economic development, it meant jobs and taxes. Politicians campaigned on it, promising to bring tax dollars, jobs and progress from economic development to benefit their constituents. Incumbents ran for reelection talking about the bacon they brought home not just from legislative set-asides and grants but also taking credit for tax dollars and jobs from projects they enticed into their districts.
Two pillars of “old politics” of land use — political pressure to bring home jobs and tax dollars and close ties between developers and politicians — no longer result in approvals for developers. The political landscape has fundamentally changed and many developers have yet to figure it out.
All land use is political. Every commercial development project requires a municipal approval before it can be built and those decisions are usually made by politicians. The relationship between elected officials and developers has often been close. Developers understand the benefits of having friends in the right places and they often make their political donations for strategic reasons. It should come as no surprise that the recently released US version of the annual Saint Index survey showed that 71% of Americans believe the relationship between elected officials and developers makes the local approval process unfair.
It is no longer in the best interest of a politician to support development. Americans are twice as likely to oppose development than to support it. One in four Americans have actively opposed a development project in their community. Public hearings are not filled with voters asking their local officials to approve projects. They are filled with passionate, committed and highly motivated residents demanding that projects not be built in their neighborhoods. 78% of Americans, 75% of Canadians and 83% of British residents all say that their communities are over developed or fine the way they are and they don’t want any new development (Source: Saint Index). These home owners are acting in their own self interest to stop projects that they believe will generate more traffic, harm the environment and change the character of their community. More than anything else they are protecting the value of their homes from the fear of the unknown. They say stop building everything now.
Too many developers are playing by the old rules and are left scratching their head asking how their project could have failed. The Mayor loved it. The City Councilors said they would support it. It included all kinds of community benefits like additional parking and parks. How did it fail? Two hundred angry neighbors showed up at the public hearing to oppose it. No one showed up to support it. It’s all about the politics.
Conscientious developers meet with elected officials early and discuss their proposed project and how it can benefit and enhance the community. They try to get the officials to indicate some support for the project before they appear at a public hearing. They may have hired a local politically connected attorney to facilitate access to officials and generate some good will. When it all works, the developer hopes to walk into the public hearing process with the votes for approval already committed. When the hearing starts and the politicians see a room full of angry constituents, the understanding they had with the developer is out the window. Officials will not commit political suicide for a developers project regardless of how good it is. It is now more politically advantageous to stand with the passionate neighbors opposing the project than to stand with the developer.
Even projects that have more community support than opposition such as supermarkets or hospitals fall victim to this neighborhood opposition because the 75% of residents who believe the project is a good idea will not be attending the public hearing. The abutters who are afraid of the unknown and are terrified about how this project will impact them will be at the hearing screaming their heads off.
The old back room political deals, sneaking projects through the hearing process during the holidays or peak summer vacation periods and strategies based on hoping you can squeak by quietly and win local approvals are failing. Successful developers are going to have to win approvals by generating grassroots political support for their projects. They have got to get into the community early and convince people that their project and what it brings to their community is worth fighting for. Developers who cannot build and demonstrate real constituent support for their project are increasingly going to fail to get their project approved.
Good projects are rejected every day. Having a good project is simply not enough. Local elected officials are not going to commit political suicide for a developers project. It is all about the politics and the game has changed. The politicians are no longer motivated to support economic development. They are motivated to oppose it and that requires a fundamental change in the way developers approach the approval process.
Politicians understand that their votes are not with the developer or the project supporters. The votes are with the highly motivated opponents who will remember any elected officials who did not listen to them next election day.
The game has fundamentally shifted and many developers have yet to adjust to the new rules.