NIMBY Wars: natural supporters and opponents in land use battles

The Saint ReportNIMBY, Planning and Zoning, Politicians and Planning, Referendum/initiative, saintblog, UncategorizedLeave a Comment

(Editor’s Note: Natural supporters and opponents are people with innate or personal reasons for supporting or opposing a project. They don’t need to be sold either way, but they might not come forward and take a position if the political manager doesn’t reach out and encourage them)

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

Once the land use consultant has gathered all of the information he needs to thoroughly understand the situation and the local laws and regulations applicable to the client’s goals, he begins drafting a campaign plan. The plan is designed to advance the client’s interests by organizing local citizens to influence their public officials to act the way the citizens want them to act, which is also the way the client wants them to act, though usually for different reasons.

Campaign plans are as unique as the situations that require them and the people who write them. The expertise and professionalism of the land use consultant tells him what political tactics would be useful, what strategies will be most effective, what public officials are empowered to provide the vote desired, and what groups and organizations may be relied on to take up the banner. Like the manager of an election campaign, the land use political consultant must understand the political lay of the land, the parties involved, and the forces at work. From all of these sources, he draws on his knowledge and experience to fashion a winning campaign strategy.

Are there existing groups the consultant can graft onto in building strength? Is the municipality likely to conduct multiple complicated hearings? Will the developer be expected to make presentations to local business and taxpayer groups? Does the status or history of the site present problems? Are there people near the project who would be particularly vulnerable to its impacts because of age, health, or condition (for example, children at a daycare center or nursing home residents) and who might need protection and  reassurance?

Does the zoning allow uses even more objectionable than the proposed use? Will mailings be an important factor, and, if so, how will they be printed and mailed and at what estimated costs? Should the citizen organization be designed to qualify for charitable status so it can conveniently raise money and appear independent? Will the organization need legal counsel at the outset, and, if so, how much money should be included in the budget for that purpose?

In preparing the plan, the manager will apply principles of politics and human nature learned through experience. He knows, for example, that a door-to-door neighborhood campaign is far more effective than a mass meeting, and not just because it demonstrates respect and deference for the residents and gives them an opportunity to air their concerns quietly. It also provides a measure of bonding: it’s difficult to publicly attack someone who has enjoyed coffee and polite conversation at your kitchen table. He also knows that people will act in what they perceive to be their own best interests, so he formulates a campaign strategy to emphasize those interests and focus citizens’ perception to nurture support (or opposition) in the coming land use battle.

And he knows that campaigns are not won without a political organization, so he will craft the campaign plan to build a strong grassroots organization to carry the message and change minds.

High on the list of elements in the campaign plan is the role of the citizen organization and related coalitions that the land use political manager will create, nurture, educate, and manage. The hub of the land use politics universe is the influence and credibility of local citizens exercising their constitutional rights and thereby influencing their local officials.

Finding Natural Supporters and Opponents

Natural supporters and opponents are people with innate or personal reasons for supporting or opposing a project. They don’t need to be sold either way, but they might not come forward and take a position if the political manager doesn’t reach out and encourage them.

Natural Supporters

The natural supporters of a project are those who believe they will benefit by or through it, directly or indirectly. Let’s take a look at a few so-called interest groups and see why they might be natural supporters.

• Parents and teachers support projects that they perceive will generate more revenue for schools: parents for the books, playground equipment, or additional teachers the money can provide, thereby reducing class sizes; and teachers for pay raises or extra help in the form of teacher’s aides. There are limits. Neither parents nor teachers will support a project they think will have a detrimental effect on the children or the schools; no amount of tax revenue will make them support a pig farm next to the elementary school. But they will seriously consider supporting other controversial projects (shopping centers, big-box stores, casinos, and power plants, to name a few), provided the projects don’t undermine their influence in town. Because developers of these kinds of projects know that tax revenues are important to many local constituencies (police, fire, and public works employees, to name three), they emphasize the volume of taxes the projects will produce.

• Building trades workers, such as electricians, plumbers, and sheet metal workers, support just about any development project for the construction jobs it will generate — provided, if they are union members, that the subcontracting jobs will be bid at union rates for union workers. This distinction is more important in some states than in others; trade unions are stronger in the Northeast and West Coast than they are in the South. But where they are important, unions can quickly become adversaries to developers who insist on right-to-work (nonunion) standards and rates, and their locally based members can become leaders of the opposition. In states where unions are strong, politicians are far more likely to side with the trades than with the developer, since union members vote.

• Service trade union workers support projects that will provide union jobs, such as operations personnel at unionized supermarkets: checkout clerks, shelf stockers, meat cutters, and so forth.

Many of these positions are held by twentysomethings and retired people, who often need goading from their shop steward to get involved, but they generally favor development that expands job opportunities or that may improve their lives, such as affordable housing.

• Town employees support projects that they believe will provide money for pay raises or other opportunities for income, or that will improve their quality of life. For example, a police officer knows that a project that creates a lot of traffic will need to hire off-duty police officers to direct traffic. A firefighter knows that a large project can be expected to offer enhancements to the fire department to demonstrate good citizenship. Town employees know that a project with high labor demands will offer part-time work that some of them might use to enhance their household income. There are limits to their support: they will support a bigbox store, but on the other side of town — not in their backyard.

• Business and taxpayer groups support projects that they perceive will help spread the tax burden and provide jobs. Business owners also support projects that they think will benefit their businesses: commercial developments that may do business with local merchants, offer them sales opportunities, or draw customer traffic to the neighborhood; or housing that may generate customers.

The local newspaper and radio station are businesses that may benefit from new development in the form of advertising; they should not be overlooked when rounding up support. Business and taxpayer groups especially like light industrial development because it’s usually located at the edge of town and provides jobs and taxes without bringing additional traffic to the downtown.

It’s also usually clean and quiet. Public officials also like light industrial development because it’s often welcomed, and it gives politicians an opportunity to take credit for bringing new jobs and taxes to town.

• Senior citizens generally support shopping centers because they have plenty of time on their hands and like to walk around enclosed malls, even if they don’t buy much. For the same reasons, they support projects that offer plenty of green space but not too much traffic, such as office and industrial parks. They also typically support senior citizen housing, assisted living complexes, nursing homes, and the like, for obvious reasons.

• Young marrieds and low-paid residents — including many municipal employees, people in food service, personal services (tailors, hairdressers, and barbers), and other service businesses — support affordable housing because their income limits their ability to live in town unless affordable housing opportunities are made available. Parents of such workers support such housing not only out of loyalty to their children, but also because they want to have their grandchildren handy for spoiling. They believe that their children should have the right and opportunity to live in the hometown in which they were raised and in which their friends live.

Natural Opponents

The obverse of natural support is natural opposition. The natural opponents of a project are those who believe they will be harmed by or through it, directly or indirectly. Let’s take a look at a few candidates and the projects they probably won’t like.

• Neighbors and abutters of a project, especially residential neighbors, are the foremost opponents because they are most directly impacted and bear the brunt of the downsides that projects bring: traffic, noise, fumes, light trespass, and so forth. They are also the most determined and strident; they see no reason why they should tolerate intrusion or why development should occur at the expense of their quality of life. Since they want no change at all in the neighborhood, they are usually not receptive to mitigation ideas unless the project is an improvement of an existing use (and the user has been a good neighbor) or the proposal involves a project that they would favor if it weren’t next door.

Sometimes, these neighbors can be convinced (or bribed) to curb their opposition, but not often.

• Old townies (who may or may not also be senior citizens) are opposed to projects that threaten to “ruin” the town’s character, which sometimes means the way the town looked in 1955, or 1975, or whatever year fits their nostalgic memories. A subset of the old townie group is made up of historic preservationists, who are also opposed but are more specific about it. They not only oppose change, but they also want to preserve buildings, forests, meadows, viewscapes, and other town features that they perceive as being of historic or scenic importance. What differentiates townies from the historic preservationists is that the latter often have the law on their side, as do other preservationist interest groups concerned with historic architecture, ancient burial grounds, archaeology, and so forth.

• In contrast to their support of shopping centers and senior citizen care facilities, senior citizen homeowners usually oppose public spending on buildings, infrastructure, or anything else that threatens to raise their property taxes. They see no need for such wasteful spending and needless tax increases, particularly if they are surviving on fixed incomes. Unless senior homeowners have grandchildren in the public schools, they will oppose new schools, and they also oppose new police and fire stations, and even senior citizen activity centers.

• Young professionals who have purchased a large home in a nice neighborhood and have (or want to have) kids and build a life are understandably opposed to any project they perceive will interfere with that dream. Unlike people in low-paying, relatively menial jobs, these well-educated and relatively well-heeled young people see themselves as on the way up. They feel empowered and entitled, and they see no reason to compromise their comfort or enjoyment by tolerating unwelcome land uses. Since they have a stake in the public school system, and since nothing is too good for their children, these “soccer moms and dads” support school spending and tend to be activists.

• Environmentalists and ecologists will oppose any kind of development if they believe the project will adversely affect their area of interest or interfere with their goals. If the project might have adverse environmental consequences, directly or indirectly, for people or animals and plants, environmentalists and ecologists will oppose it. Environmental activists are true believers in their cause, and they take particular umbrage when the object of their concern comes under attack right in their own hometown.

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


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