NIMBY Wars -choose land use politics over consensus or legal approach

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(Editor’s Note: Having argued  for using professional land use managers to direct campaigns, this excerpt from NIMBY Wars explains why developers can avoid troubles they faced in consensus or legal approaches to planning when they use a land use politics approach.)

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

Earlier, we explained why old-fashioned approaches don’t work in the modern world and how the land use politics approach differs from the public relations, marketing, mass meetings, political fixer, and other approaches. Land use politics requires engaging a campaign consultant and manager, and it is therefore more expensive than, say, sending a mass mailing to every home in town reinforced with a full-page ad in the local newspaper. Why use a more expensive method?

The short answer is because it works. A developer who spends two years going through an approval process only to be voted down in the end has wasted both his time and money, and has only two choices: start over or walk away. To throw good money after bad after trying and failing with one or more of the obsolete approaches to project approval seems ill-advised, if not foolish, articularly when a more politically effective method is available. Although a land use political campaign may require “boots-on-the-ground” management for several months, it is actually more cost-effective than either the consensus or legalistic approach.

The reasons for engaging a land use political consultant are the reasons for hiring any professional: knowledge, experience, and effectiveness.

Managing a land use political campaign is no job for amateurs; developers are often their own worst enemy because they are constitutionally unable to act in a disinterested and diplomatic manner when the project under attack is their “baby.” Developers need not be tyrants or buffoons to alienate citizens who already mistrust their motives and deny their credibility. Political and diplomatic skills are needed. How much worse things can get is quickly revealed when the developer is pressed to make generous promises, is embarrassed publicly over a previous project or sticky episode, or loses his temper in public and tells the crowd exactly what he thinks of them.

The reasons people are unwise to represent themselves in court are the same reasons developers should not attempt to represent themselves in securing project approvals.

The crux is that political campaign management, especially as applied to land use, is not a commonsense undertaking: political experience and expertise are required for success. Lawyers sometimes assume that a law degree equips them to manage political battles, an assumption that is not borne out by the facts. For one thing, most lawyers get hung up on the potential legal ramifications of each possible action, essentially paralyzing what needs to be a nimble, creative, quick-response organization. Lawyers who try Machiavellian strategy usually get caught doing it, damaging the client’s credibility. Second, lawyers don’t know how to shape or deliver a political message. Third, they cannot do community outreach: ordinary people typically don’t like or trust them, and because they are advocates for the developer, they lack credibility. Last, whatever other skills they may have, lawyers lack the time and staff for the boots-on-the-ground campaigning that is essential to recruiting, organizing, training, and managing the citizen-soldiers necessary to implement the campaign.

The list of those ill-equipped to manage a land use political campaign also includes number crunchers who believe that land use, citizen preferences, and every human response can be reduced to a formula, and that simply assigning values to each variable will yield the answers to every issue. This approach is all about collecting and manipulating data to predict response and acting on the assumption that the prediction is accurate — a dubious notion at best, given the potential for wide swings in public opinion and the broad range of assumptions that crunchers make. Crunchers assume that people’s opinions, emotions, responses, and politics are static and perfectly predictable, that variables are knowable and explicable, and that human interaction is mathematically quantifiable. They are not, of course, but a social engineer armed with a spreadsheet can prove anything, including her inductive conclusion that her assumptions and biases represent consensus, and that the measured population is archetypical.

Various software programs and mathematical modelers are involved in this chase for the grail, but the fact is that land use politics is more an art than a science, and no amount of data shuffling can trump a well-wrought political campaign. Land use politics works on large, complex, and controversial projects because it is infinitely scalable and limited only by the imagination and creativity of the manager in crafting a customized political campaign designed to achieve a client’s goal.

No formula and no cookie-cutter routine will suffice.

This does not mean that land use political managers don’t use opinion polling; the opposite is true. But they use the results to identify issues and trends, and they understand that public opinion is fickle and easily swayed. Sometimes they use polls to learn public opinion; sometimes they use them to shift public opinion; and sometimes they use them to create the impression of public opinion and thereby influence votes. To them, a survey is a tool to be used in planning strategy; it does not dictate strategy.

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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