(Editor’s note: NIMBY Wars – The Politics of Land Use will be published on October 28. In this excerpt, it’s easy to understand the notion of land use politics when you accept that everyone has a political agenda at stake)
By P. Michael Saint, Robert J. Flavell and Patrick F. Fox
The legal basis for zoning has always arisen from more lofty sentiments — protection of public health, welfare, and morals, for example. The reality is that everyone involved in zoning and land use — the applicant, the neighbors, the town officials, the supporters, the opponents, the applicant’s competitors — has a political agenda.
Public health is a consideration, but let’s be honest: gone are the days of slaughterhouses built next to orphanages. Gone, too, are the days when a developer could fill in a marsh or clear-cut a forest without anyone saying a word.
In local land use politics, as in almost everything else, everyone has an agenda. Even the pure of heart who don’t realize they have agendas actually do, because it’s human nature to think about how a given proposal will affect you, your friends, and your community.
Some agendas are easily spotted and straightforward. But others may not be, and it falls to the project proponent to figure out what a given person or group’s real agenda may be, and to act accordingly. Often, the neighbors’ agenda is simply to see how they can benefit in exchange for dropping their opposition to a project. What will the developer offer for their silence or support? Can they make the developer buy their homes for twice their value? If not, can they exact some sort of damage payment from the developer? Can they at least force the developer to donate land for a playground?
Opponents who are intractably against a project may focus on adverse environmental impacts, claiming to be friends of nature. But often their real agenda is to make sure nothing gets built. Generally, such opponents use a kitchen-sink approach, throwing every conceivable objection and obstacle at the proposal to see what sticks. Sophisticated opponents will use a serial objection approach, pressing one issue at a time until it is resolved, and then raising another, ad infinitum.
The developer’s team will assert that the project is for the greater good. Such an argument is not persuasive to people who believe that the development’s noise, crowds, traffic, and odors will adversely affect their quality of life and, worse, their property values. Who could argue that any structure, including a church or an old folks’ home, will not be more problematic than a vacant lot? No matter how well designed, attractive, or environmentally sensitive a project may be, it still represents change to the neighbors and brings a danger that bad things will result from it.
There are exceptions for projects that reclaim eyesores, such as vacant shopping malls, brownfield sites where environmental contamination demands remedy, and the rehab and conversion of old factories to mixed uses. But even when the project is seen as a plus for the community, neighbors will demand the least possible intrusion on their lives, and they will often demand a mitigation pound of flesh beyond the pocket park included in the design.
This is their neighborhood: they have a sense of ownership, possession, and entitlement, and they want some acknowledgment of their importance in allowing the project to proceed. Besides, this may be their one and
only chance to force a developer to make neighborhood improvements that the city won’t make and the neighbors can’t afford.