NIMBY Wars: Preparing a Defense Campaign To Stop a Project

The Saint ReportEnvironmental Planning, NIMBY, Planning and Zoning, Politicians and Planning, Property Development, saintblog, Urban planning

(Editor’s Note: Continuing our installments from NIMBY Wars: The Politics of Land Use, this chapter sets out requirements for managing defense in a land use politics campaign – such campaigns each mobilize local citizens but for different purposes and require different strategies and tactics)

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

NIMBY WarsMost modern-day citizens are automatically opposed to nearly any development in their community; they fear the unknown, oppose change, and worry about property values. Since elected officials listen to citizens, one might expect opposition to a development proposal to be a simple and straightforward affair of alerting officials to public sentiment and expecting them to vote accordingly. But because some public officials — and most planners — think they know better than the general public, and because ineffective opposition is perceived as arising from a small minority who can safely be disregarded, there are often leadership issues in which the official or planner is determined to have his way and will recommend or vote for what’s best in his opinion, rather than for what people want. Add to this the fact that most project opponents, left to themselves, will grumble but stay home unless they are spurred to action, and the need to organize and manage development opposition becomes clear.

In communities where activist citizens hold sway, rounding up opponents and bombarding the developer and the officials who support the project has become standard. But where a business interest concludes that defense against unwarranted market intrusion is necessary to defend market share, protect investment, or protect major tenants — or to keep current or prospective tenants from migrating — citizens are hardly likely to pour into the streets to protect the business, and a ready-made opposition group is unlikely to be available. Even if it were, the group’s motivations would not match that of the business interest: citizens will oppose that business’s efforts to expand just as eagerly as they will fight a competing business, using a scorched-earth policy against any development whatsoever. An adept land use political manager, with careful organizing and focusing of citizen attention on limited goals, can surgically remove a threat without crippling the patient.

The campaign research, investigation, preparation, and planning necessary for offense campaigns — including the need for a detailed scope study and report — apply to defense campaigns as well, though the methods used to implement the defense campaign require a different set of talents. Professional land use consultants are much more circumspect about revealing the client’s identity in a defense campaign, and they will be looking for opposition ammunition to fire at the project and developer, rather than preparing countermeasures to such attacks as they would in an offense campaign. But the initial stages — researching the community, the site, and the political landscape — remain pretty much the same.

Like an offense campaign, the defense campaign plan will utilize citizens, but defense is much less a commonsense affair than an offense campaign. Diversion tactics tend to be convoluted, so the manager needs to break down each gambit into simple steps that citizen group members can readily understand and implement. It is here that the care the manager used in selecting group members, and the trust he has built with them, bears fruit. The first major difference between offense and defense campaigning lies in recruiting members of the opposition citizen group that the manager organizes, educates, and manages. While citizen supporters on the offense side tend to be people who will benefit somehow from the project, project opponents come in every stripe, from those with real, worrisome concerns, to those with NIMBY reasons, to conspiracy theorists who smell a plot in every chance remark, to lonely figures who join for the social contact.

The first and foremost caveat in recruiting opponents is that they cannot be crazy, violent, lecherous, foul-mouthed, or foul-tempered or have issues with personal hygiene. Amateurs forming citizen groups usually welcome anyone who turns up as a member, and consider themselves lucky. They put everyone to work right away without screening for shortcomings or character flaws, and later they have difficulty unhitching the undesirable member or finding activities in the back room to keep him occupied. The professional land use campaign manager cannot be so cavalier in organizing her group. Consider the consequences of having people with such drawbacks as the public face of the opposition. Their actions, language, and reputation will characterize the opposition in the minds of many, making it easier for project proponents to dismiss opponents as marginal, and destroying respect from the public officials and boards that will make the land use decisions. Furthermore, managing a member who (for want of a better term) has issues consumes valuable (and irreplaceable) time: the manager and citizen group leader always have to worry whether Crazy Henry is going to act up, or spend time apologizing, explaining, and undoing. Exiling such a local citizen raises a whole new array of problems, not the least of which is the potential for revenge and sabotage. Obviously, the manager cannot psychoanalyze every potential opponent, but being aware of the possibility of difficulty alerts the manager, as well as those she relies upon, to employ a modicum of caution and discretion.

In recruiting opposition citizens, project managers find that natural opponents are the best prospects. Abutters and other neighbors of the project locus, especially residential neighbors, are extremely valuable, not just because they can point to proximity and direct impacts, but also because they have legal standing. Not only can they effectively insist on reviews and studies that non-abutter opponents cannot, but they have the right to be directly notified of every action, meeting, and hearing that the government body schedules, and they have standing to sue the developer, the town, or both and appeal any decision. They also have a certain moral sway and a claim on community empathy that less-affected opponents do not: their neighborhood, families, and children will bear the brunt of the development, and but for happenstance any citizen might be in the same unenviable situation, seeking the support of fellow citizens.

Other residents whom the development might impact will oppose the project once they are made aware of the threat and given reasons to be opposed (which the manager will be ready to supply), and interest group opponents will clamber aboard once they are alerted and galvanized to join in a coalition with the opposition citizens, a job the manager is experienced and expert in undertaking.

Beware of Loose Cannons

The desirable traits for citizen group leaders are pretty much the same whether the group is on offense or defense: the individual must be intelligent, articulate, presentable, and unflappable and have leadership qualities. But on the defense side, the campaign manager and citizen leader must also be on the lookout for loose-cannon members who get a bright idea on how to annoy the proponents and act on it without clearing the scheme first. This sort of activity is much more common on the defense side than on offense for several reasons, not the least of which is that project supporters tend to be more staid and less given to pranks and destructive behavior than opponents, who sometimes let their frustrations cloud their judgment. To the agitated project opponent, the faceless corporate entity seeking to profiteer at the neighborhood’s expense deserves retribution, and he is perfectly willing to deliver the message in a pointed and creative manner. He does not see beyond his single-minded objective, or appreciate the consequences that may ensue, including police involvement, litigation, bad publicity for the cause, loss of credibility, and a shift in public sentiment toward sympathy for the project proponent. The experienced manager will make clear to members of the opposition group that off-message mischief is counterproductive; can damage the group’s credibility, reputation, and effectiveness; and is not to be attempted.

Creative Campaigning

This is not to say that creative methods of conducting an opposition campaign are not productive. They are often the most productive elements because they bring attention to the cause that ordinary campaign methods could not achieve. In one of the cases presented in Chapter 9, a Saint campaign manager published a public official’s home phone number in the newspaper along with the message that the official was the only thing stopping development of a badly needed grocery store. The citizens’ irate phone calls to the alderman’s home brought the desired result: he voted in favor of the project. Had that campaign manager been squeamish about calling an alderman at home — or had the manager been deterred by the alderman’s bluster that he would not tolerate calls to his home — the overwhelming weight of public pressure would not have forced the politician to change his mind. The manager’s job is to do what works to win (within the bounds of law). If that involves staging a vigil on the mayor’s front lawn, handing out flyers outside a church, renting a billboard, sending a plane or hot-air balloon aloft to display a message banner, holding a rally at the project site, or creating a public spectacle, then so be it.

In all of this, knowing when and how to use the press is vitally important to success. Public perception of the issues will be driven in part by the attitude that the press conveys. This does not mean relying on the press to do the job, the way a public relations approach might work; it means using the media’s thirst for news to the client’s advantage. An astute campaign manager in a defense campaign will not let any attack in the press go unanswered; nor will the manager fail to take every opportunity to present the opponents’ arguments in the media through letters, op-ed pieces, and comments from the citizen group leader in news stories covering the proposed project.

<p.It’s also important to know when and how to go around the press and take the message directly to the public, particularly in communities where the media pay homage to city hall or the chamber of commerce and follow the party line on development. Receiving fair coverage in news media controlled by the establishment or the developer is not possible; but the media no longer control public perception, and alternative methods are available to counter adverse journalism. Newsletters that look like newspapers can be effective, as can the Internet, where an opponent website and chat room can provide citizens with an accessible and insulated forum to critique the project without media bias. Going around the media also includes citizen action — making use of the citizen-soldiers that the campaign manager has so painstakingly recruited and trained. Unleashing their enthusiasm by suggesting that everyone call the mayor (or the newspaper editor) at home is one example of this approach.

Organizing Protests and Rallies

In staging a public opposition meeting, it is essential to invite the developer, thereby placing him in an unwinnable situation. If he refuses to attend, he can be cast as having something to hide or being unspeakably arrogant, unwilling to hear constructive criticism, deaf to the cries of the families he is hurting, or uncaring about the environmental damage he is causing, proving that the fix is in at city hall.

Opponents can use his absence productively by bashing the developer and the project for the benefit of the audience and the news media. If the developer does attend the meeting, he can be cornered, asked embarrassing questions, forced to make concessions, confronted by neighborhood opponents, put on the defensive, made to look devious or contentious, or both, and roundly vilified for his attitude. If he can be goaded into losing his temper, so much the better. It is also vital to invite public officials to witness the developer’s doubletalk and tantrum, and the news media to report on it. If public officials are present, accusing the developer of dirty politics is usually helpful in prodding them to distance themselves from the mud; denouncing the developer’s past failed developments in other communities, together with a list of unkept promises and outright lies, is always a crowdpleaser and is sure to get attention from the news media.

Background on Nimby Wars is found at, and the book is available at the following fine booksellers: