Land Use Politics: Winning Project Approvals in a NIMBY World

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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 new discipline in land use permitting that employs sophisticated political campaign strategies and tactics to help ordinary citizens influence public officials’ discretionary land use decisions. It is not lobbying, and its practitioners do not engage public officials in discussion on the pros and cons of a development proposal. Instead, land use politics practitioners facilitate grassroots activism by organizing and assisting citizens in the effective use of their political rights. These include the right to free speech, the right to petition the government for redress of grievances, and the right to assemble, so that the citizens can urge their public officials to act in a way consistent with the citizens’ wishes.

 Land use politics is based on citizen advocacy, not professional lobbying or presentation. The difference is considerable, and the benefits are many. First, nobody in a community is more credible to public officials or fellow citizens than a local taxpayer and voter who expresses concerns and asks questions about a development proposal. When the voter articulates the reasons for favoring or opposing a project, he will be heard with respect.

 The lobbyist, public relations consultant, marketing team, and lawyers will be seen as hired guns whose driving force is money, not community character. Their approach is factual, analytical, academic, or legalistic, not personal or emotional and not driven by what’s best for the neighborhood and its residents. The credibility of these professionals is suspect, despite their credentials, experience, and expertise, and their arguments leave plenty of room for doubt. They are paid by the developer, so local citizens might be forgiven for suspecting that they might skew their figures, or liberally interpret the data, or select the data to which to give the greatest weight in order to help their client’s case.

 Lawyers, perhaps, as well as architects, engineers, and other professionals might be given a little slack in the credibility department because they have ethical standards that generally prohibit flat-out deceit. People understand that they are necessary to design projects to comply with the building code or to present the resulting proposal to town officials. Still, local officials will listen to the words of a local citizen before they will be moved by paid project advocates, and rightly so. Local citizens can vote to reelect the public officials; the architect cannot. There is another, less cynical reason: local citizens can describe firsthand how the project is likely to affect their lifestyles, property, or families—or at least how they perceive that it will. The architect may have taken great care to make the project unobtrusive, environmentally sensitive, and user-friendly, and may take great personal pride in the design she has created. But the development won’t affect her home and family directly and personally every day. No matter how well it is designed, the project is just another commission for her; she will not have to live with the traffic, noise, and disruption it causes in the neighborhood.

 Second, local citizens have local memory, including the history and background of the site, the neighborhood, and the town as a whole. They remember people and events that out-of-town consultants, lobbyists, or professionals have no way of knowing. Consultants and professionals can speak from academic, science, design, and planning perspectives; local citizens can speak from the heart.

 Local citizens also have personal and psychological investments in the community. This means that they are highly unlikely to favor a proposal that they believe is bad for the town, even if they would gain personally, and that they will actively oppose efforts to impose such a development on their community.

 Finally, local citizens have local ties; they know their public officials on a personal, neighborly, or family basis, and the public officials share their concerns about the community and the future. In many municipalities, city and town councils are elected by ward or by district; when a vote is taken, other councilors defer to the member who represents the involved district. That district councilor is highly likely to support the view of his constituents, not only because of their power at the ballot box, but also because he knows and respects them—and will have to live with the vote he makes while working in his district on a daily basis.

Land use politics is based on citizen advocacy. Citizen advocacy moves political influence out of the shadows because the citizen speaks directly to public officials about how she believes the development will affect her and her community. It overcomes corrupt machine politics because the citizen speaks publicly for herself, influencing other citizens and organizing them into a political force, while the creaky old political machine is busy pulling levers behind the curtains, trying to trade political favors while disregarding the voting public’s wishes.

 The job of the land use politics consultant is to find citizens whose support or opposition to a given development concurs with the client’s posture, and to help them organize into an effective political force. No doubletalk or arm-twisting is necessary; a practiced political consultant knows how to find people who share a given view and how to track down those who would agree if asked because they are natural advocates of the point of view.

Mike Saint is chairman and CEO of The Saint Consulting Group, email:
Patrick Fox is president of The Saint Consulting Group, email: