NIMBY Wars: Political approach rouses public to back developers

The Saint ReportNIMBY, Planning and Zoning, saintblogLeave a Comment

(Editor’s Note: In recent excerpts from NIMBY Wars — The Politics of Land Use, we explained why alternatives to the political approach often fail to galvanize public support — whether PR, marketing or the local politicl fixer. They all fall short the advantages of political campaign strategies and tactics in modern land use politics.)
By P. Michael Saint, Robert J. Flavell and Patrick F. Fox 

NIMBYWars_coverThe political approach to project approval gives both the proposal and the developer credibility and a degree of popular support because it employs citizen-soldiers to carry the message. Once they are psychologically committed to the cause, these citizens will influence others and bring them aboard.

The organization and management of citizen support groups is the key to land use politics because it creates an aura of popularity and approval. It also undermines and helps short-circuit opposition efforts to treat the developer as an unwelcome outsider inflicting a monstrosity on the town. If this effort is properly handled, opponents will find themselves unable to establish a convincing local chauvinism — us against them — since the “them” contingent includes their own neighbors.  










The political approach also helps equalize the battle by providing a voice to citizens who might otherwise be intimidated into silence by the attitude or bullying of people who take a contrary view of the issues. Giving voice to the minority view — which can be built into the perception of being the majority or consensus view — establishes legitimacy in the minds of local officials. Politicians realize that there are two sides to the matter and that they cannot simply adopt the view of the squeakiest wheel.

The political approach is also focused on what is important and avoids what is not. For example, the political approach focuses on how we can get the votes we need for approval (or rejection). The community consensus approach generates issues by asking citizens for their ideas, criticisms, and suggestions for improving the project proposal. The public relations approach assumes that people need more information and fills their mailboxes, but does nothing to galvanize action. At best, it neutralizes people who didn’t care very much in the first place. And the marketing approach treats citizens as customers or buyers, to be sold on project benefits but not spurred into any kind of action to encourage project approval.


The political approach also provides a setting in which the development team can succeed. Instead of walking into a hornet’s nest of vilification at the public hearing, the team finds friendly faces and hears friendly voices testifying in favor of the project. Although opponents have a voice as well, the perception of a balanced crowd will make the board members reluctant to dismiss the project out of hand, and where the developer’s land use consultant has packed the hall with supporters, the development team might be seen as speaking for the majority of citizens, the consensus, in the community.  

The mere presence of support to offset the customary antidevelopment sentiment of crowds at public hearings will surprise and unnerve opponents and get the attention of the public officials. This affords the development team a chance to make its presentation in a professional and compelling manner, rather than under the censorious groans and exclamations of a clearly hostile crowd.

The political approach also has significant political value. Because it organizes citizens and rouses them to express their views, it is politically effective in putting politicians on the hot seat — creating the predicament of voting against their constituents’ expressed wishes. Because it uses a political campaign approach that organizes public support, generates an inference of consensus, and identifies and addresses issues, it is effective in providing public officials with validation, or political cover, to justify their votes in favor of approval.

This political cover is highly valuable, even essential, on several levels: it provides the politician with shelter from opponent attacks; it provides a shield for use in the run-up to the next election; it provides an opportunity to take credit if the project succeeds and proves popular; and it provides an excuse to blame implementation if the project fails or proves unpopular.

The political approach also avoids litigation, a very expensive, time-consuming, and usually unsuccessful method of resolving permitting problems. The legal appeals process, for example, requires the complaining (appealing) party to exhaust all administrative remedies before filing a legal action. This means first appealing within the permitting system, applying for administrative review, passing through each level of the government hierarchy, dealing with agencies and bureaucracies and their agenda-driven staffers, and meeting all of the various filing and deadline requirements at each level and with each entity. This costly and protracted process is exacerbated where environmental issues are involved because they invoke an en tirely different panoply of agencies, statutes, and regulatory schemes, each with its own requirements.

(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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