NIMBY Wars: project scope study takes political pulse of community

The Saint ReportNIMBY, Planning and Zoning, saintblog, UncategorizedLeave a Comment

(Editor’s Note: The first step for a professional land use manager to direct a campaign for your project is to carry out a scoping study that takes the political pulse of the community and evaluates the political, social, demographic, geographic, and other aspects of the community as well as to identify site-specific issues.)

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

Once the land use consultant is ready to begin preparing for the project assignment, his first step is to familiarize himself with the locus of the project and the political pulse of the community. To accomplish this, he begins with a scope study to evaluate the political, social, demographic, geographic, and other aspects of the community as well as to identify site-specific issues.

The scope investigation begins with online research, reading the community’s official website, checking websites of local newspapers and publications, looking up population and demographic figures, and generally gathering intelligence on the community, its leaders, and its background.

The manager will then travel to the community (in a car with local plates so as not to call attention to himself) and view the site, looking for potential issues and usable political ammunition:

such as the size and location of the site; accessibility relative to major traffic arteries; types of land uses on surrounding and nearby parcels; especially sensitive uses such as schools, playgrounds, or senior citizen facilities; proximity of residential development; nearest similar land use; whether the area is built up commercially or industrially; height and mass of nearby uses; availability of public transportation; distance from the nearest major population center; whether the locus appears to be in a flight path of an airport or military base; and whether runoff from or to the site may be an issue, among many other considerations; the current evident uses of the site, with a description of improvements such as buildings, outbuildings, offices, parking areas, parked or stored vehicles, and green space; whether there appear to be utilities and infrastructure facilities serving the site; impressions on whether the current use emits fumes, noxious odors, noise, smoke, or other undesirable externality elements; and an educated guess whether traffic to and from the site might be an issue; and geographic features and condition of the site, including whether it is forested; whether wetlands, waterways, or vernal pools are present; whether the site is flat and buildable; whether the site appears to be a pristine greenfield or a contaminated brownfield; whether any easement or right of way appears to impinge on the  site; whether it appears to be a wildlife habitat; whether it has significant environmental or ecological elements; and first impressions on whether it appears to have historic, architectural, archaeological, or preservation value.

The consultant will then do some discreet reconnoitering, starting with a drive through town, gathering a general impression, and paying a visit to the public library’s newspaper archives, followed by research at city hall and record-checking at the assessor’s office, planning board, zoning board, and building commissioner’s office.

Conducting defense research operations at the local level can be unnerving for the uninitiated, since gaining information from public employees often involves satisfying their curiosity about why the individual wants the information, the better to feed the gossip grapevine that snakes through all city operations. If the consultant is publicly representing the developer on an offense project and is able to disclose that information, the town employees will take little interest in him or his research, but they are unlikely to be forthcoming with extra help or suggestions unless they personally approve of the project.

Where the consultant is doing confidential research or conducting a defense campaign, things get trickier. He does not want to disclose his own information, let alone the client’s, but risks losing all cooperation from the rebuffed gossip if he refuses to say anything at all.

An experienced land use consultant will know that seekers of public records are not required to explain themselves, much less produce a driver’s license or photo ID. But he also knows that curious town municipal employees may not be cooperative unless their thirst for gossip is slaked. The land use consultant evaluates the situation and acts to elicit more information than he gives. He might tell the nosy employee that he heard a big-box store is planned for the site, thereby tacitly inviting the employee to tell what she knows. In performing confidential research, a consultant may employ an alias to help maintain both his privacy and the client’s. The use of an alias is legal so long as there is no intent to defraud, in a legal sense. Since the consultant is seeking information — not money or property — there is no legal intent to defraud. This also has the benefit of curtailing the efforts of nosy journalists and the client’s competitors. He’s thinking of moving to the neighborhood but wants to know what is going to be built on the nearby site. Or he might say he’s doing research for a lawyer and doesn’t know anything beyond the site address. Sometimes, the consultant will want to engage in some small talk and turn on the charm. Other times, the visit will be strictly business, straightforward and as brief as possible. Sometimes, in highly contentious situations, the consultant will sense trouble in advance and will ask a company lawyer to call ahead and advise the appropriate town official managing the office that he is sending in a re searcher on legal business to look at public records and would appreciate the town employees’ cooperation and assistance.

After recording his notes and impressions of the town, the site, and the city hall research, the consultant will try to find a spot — usually a diner, barber shop, or saloon — where locals gather and socialize.

If he can insinuate himself into a conversation with some townies, he is likely to gain valuable insight and get a handle on local attitudes, issues, and prejudices, all of which will be useful in drafting the campaign plan. He will evaluate the situation and decide what to tell the locals, being careful not to contradict the story he gave at city hall, keeping it simple and not embellishing. Once he has satisfied the locals’ curiosity about who he is and why he’s there, he can become a “regular” and win a measure of trust.

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.

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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