NIMBY Wars – qualities to look for in a land use political consultant

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NIMBYWars_cover(Editor’s Note: Having argued  for using professional land use managers to direct campaigns, this excerpt from NIMBY Wars — The Politics of Land Use explains the qualities to look for in a land use political consultant — not wannabes, but careful experience, solid strategies and effective tactics to generate community action.)

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

The land use political consultant is essentially a political campaign manager and strategist with some knowledge (sometimes detailed knowledge) of land use law. Although real-world experience in the political sphere is essential to winning a land use political fight, the requirements of land use law can be readily learned.

Since enabling statutes vary with each state and zoning ordinances vary with each community, it’s necessary for the land use political consultant to familiarize himself with the rules and parameters. He will recognize those elements as political tools that offer opportunities to win: the devil in land use law is often in the details. But unless he has the requisite political expertise, he will not see the opportunities or understand how to use them to his client’s advantage.

In other words, it’s far more important that a land use battle be entrusted to a political expert who knows a little zoning law than that it be put in the hands of a zoning expert who knows a little politics.

There may be zoning, planning, environmental, and legalistic sideshows, and the land use consultant will educate himself on the state statutes, local ordinances, bylaws, regulations, and practices during the preparation or “scope” period, before actually drafting the campaign plan. But the main event, in the center ring, is political.

A successful land use political manager is creative, imaginative, and a problem solver. As a political campaign manager, he has learned the importance of deadlines and the need to get problems solved quickly and effectively. He has learned to consider the consequences before taking or recommending a course of action, and he will have a backup plan with ready alternatives to use  when surprises crop up. He will not tell his client, “There’s nothing we can do,” both because he would never paint his client into a corner and because he knows that there is always something he can do.

Here’s an example of project manager creativity from the Saint Consulting Group’s case files. Saint was working with a client who planned to build a supermarket. It was clear that residents of a senior citizen housing complex would support the client’s proposal and help overcome opposition from a residential neighborhood near the project site. But the hearing was scheduled to  begin at 8 p.m., and it promised to last at least a couple of hours, well past the seniors’ bedtimes. It was December, and some seniors would find driving in the dark difficult and might be reluctant to attend or stay at the hearing.

Rather than risk their absence or have them leave in the middle of the hearing, the project manager arranged bus transportation and a night out, which included dinner at 6 p.m., followed by a tour of Christmas light and crèche displays in the area and arrival at town hall right on time for the hearing. With two dozen senior citizens appearing at the hearing in favor, the board approved the project.

Sometimes, town hall bureaucrats create obstacles that require the political manager’s creativity to overcome. In one defense case, the entire town political establishment favored the project that Saint’s client was opposing. Every time the project manager asked the town clerk for a public record, the uncooperative clerk would be unable to find it and would report the conversation to the aldermen. In a similar case, the town clerk’s office lost the zoning bylaw language that Saint’s project manager submitted three separate times to keep it from coming up at the town meeting. In the former case, a Freedom of Information Act request through the state’s attorney general produced the records; in the latter, a deft application of Robert’s Rules of Order substituted the client’s preferred language for the wording that town officials proposed.

A land use political manager should be able to size people up quickly, read body language, see through masks and misdirection, and deduce an individual’s reliability. This is not to ascribe the powers of a seer or mind reader to the consultant. It is only to say that, based on her experience and the subtle signals people convey to those who notice (and maybe the sixth sense that grows from dealing with political doubletalk for years), the land use political consultant is able to evaluate people quickly.

This is an important ability in recruiting potential supporters, identifying opponents, and selecting a committed and reliable citizen group leader to serve as the face and voice of the citizen group. Some may think this ability belies a suspicious nature, and they would be correct: a healthy dose of paranoia inhabits every successful political campaign manager. It makes her wary of people who are not quite real, too good to be true, perhaps seeking entrée into the group in order to spy or undermine the effort.

It also enables her to read opponents carefully in word, deed, approach, and determination, to know the enemy and what drives them. Are they unsure of their facts? Do they temporize and equivocate when they speak? Do they hesitate to take a firm stand? Do they deviate in their stories? Is their real agenda the same as their stated agenda? Do they seem to have multiple leaders who are at odds with one another? All these measures help tell the land use political manager what her client is up against, and provide valuable insight into the most effective tactics to use in winning the battle.

The experienced political manager is able to elicit information, both directly and indirectly, from the multiple sources she’ll use to monitor the political situation. She will have the talent (and sometimes the instincts) of a good newspaper reporter in getting people to provide information without realizing they are doing so. She will notice not only what they say, but how they say it — with conviction, or with hesitation and doubt. She will notice how they refer to others
in the group, including group leaders — respectfully or derisively, by first name or last, amiably or more formally.

Finally, the successful manager will be adept at understanding and anticipating the consequences of every action and reaction, not only to what she does, but to what others do as well. If the other side is self-destructing, it may need no help in doing so, or perhaps a little shove would move things along. Her ability to anticipate and evaluate, arising from her experience in electoral politics, helps her decide among alternatives. What will be the consequences of taking Step A, as distinguished from launching Step B? What will be the upshot if the opposition reacts to Step A with Action C? Through an assortment of possible actions and a field of possible reactions, the manager weighs the implications, both short range and long range, and determines which combination of actions will best ad vance the client’s agenda. A professional political campaign manager does not barge into a situation or act precipitously; and she certainly doesn’t bungle and blunder her way through a politically sensitive land use fight.

Where others wield a cleaver, she inserts a scalpel.

(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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