NIMBY Wars: avoid clumsy amateurs; they don’t know land use politics

The Saint ReportNIMBY, Planning and Zoning, saintblogLeave a Comment

(Editor’s Note: As we have discussed so far in NIMBY Wars, novice political operatives think that simply inviting people to a hearing will produce turnout. A seasoned political campaign manager knows that mobilizing citizens requires a lot more than that. It’s important to avoid clumsy amateurs.)

By P. Michael Saint, Robert J. Flavell and Patrick F. Fox 

An additional point, and an important one, is that land use politics methods work only for those who know how to use them. Many is the public relations operative who thought he knew how politics works, who barged into town full of ideas and threw his weight around, only to dash his client’s hopes. And many are the clients (and their corporate lawyers) who erroneously think they  know how to attract and keep project support. For example, one corporate lawyer insisted that the way to turn out favorable crowds was to hire clowns with balloons. He was serious and insistent. His client lost. Another big-firm lawyer spent so much effort trying to figure out the identity of Saint’s campaign manager that Saint killed his client’s project while the lawyer bumbled around playing Sherlock Holmes.

Clumsy amateurs create a mess, poison the well for future attempts, and destroy the proponent’s  credibility. Since they don’t foresee the consequences of their actions, they will use a blunderbuss where a feather would have done nicely. They hold contentious public meetings in auditoriums when a small friendly gathering over coffee in a neighbor’s kitchen would have been far more effective in curbing opposition.

Their inept efforts and statements reflect on the project and the developer. Amateurs destroy the developer’s credibility by making promises the developer can’t keep and by inaccurately describing project details that are vitally important to neighbors.

When the neighbors discover that the parking lot is twice the size described, they will never trust the developer again. Even if the developer withdraws the plans and tries to refile later, the damage has been done: people decide that the project is bad, and no amount of tinkering with the site plan will change their minds.

Amateurs also make enemies because they don’t understand the nature of politics. They burn bridges needlessly, force compromises that no one wants, and push their agenda to the detriment of the project and the client. In contrast, professional land use  practitioners are agile and surgical in their approach. In one case, a Saint project manager was able to organize coalitions of citizens to support the client’s supermarket proposal and get it approved while making sure that the same citizens vehemently opposed a competitor’s  proposal for a rival supermarket nearby. He completed his work and faded out of town unnoticed, like the Lone Ranger. In another case, a client needed help developing a site. Saint was in the midst of executing a successful strategy when the client advised the firm that he had a falling-out with the contractor and Saint’s assignment was now to kill the project. The team shifted gears, and the project was dead in a week. Because the managers in both these projects were professionals, expert in the delicacies of political maneuvering, each was able to respond effectively to the rapidly changing circumstances without missing a beat and delivered results for the client promptly and in full.

In another case, Saint’s customary review of legal notices regarding a client’s competitor’s project uncovered a procedural error that delayed the hearing, forced the developer to readvertise, and gave the Saint team time to convince city council members to switch their votes from supporting the project to opposing it. The project was voted down. In another case, a newly vetted Saint campaign manager beat an expansion of a big-box store, protecting three of the client’s stores, by finding a silver bullet: a procedural error in the proponent’s request for a parking variance that neglected to set forth the “hardship” required.

Because Saint’s managers in both these projects knew the local regulations and were attentive to detail, the client’s interests were protected.

One final case is worth mentioning: a Saint client telephoned one of the firm’s principals at home on a Saturday afternoon to report that he had just learned that a competitor was applying for zoning variances to build a competing supermarket across the street from his very profitable store. The hearing was scheduled for Monday. The client wanted the project killed, of course, knowing that he would inevitably lose a percentage of his customer base to a new store in a business that operates on 1 percent profit margins. Saint quickly organized an opposition citizen group to call town officials at home over the weekend, galvanized the subject neighborhood, and rounded up a large crowd of citizen opponents to appear at the hearing. The local newspaper reported “widespread opposition” at the hearing, and even though the proponent was represented by the go-to zoning lawyer in the area, the zoning board unanimously rejected the application.

Saint had killed the project in 48 hours.

For biographical details on P. Michael Saint, Robert J. Flavell and Patrick F. Fox, click here) 

Nimby Wars was released on October 28th, and is available at the following fine booksellers


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