(Editor’s note: NIMBY Wars – The Politics of Land Use will be published on October 28. In this excerpt, there are so many ways to put public pressure on a local council when a land use issue is at stake)
By P. Michael Saint, Robert J. Flavell and Patrick F. Fox
A development application is before the local council for a zoning change. The applicant’s development team puts on a thorough presentation and answers all of the board members’ questions satisfactorily, and the developer’s attorney reminds the board of the many benefits the project will bring in exchange for a simple change in zoning. How will the board vote?
Some consultants would analyze an individual board member’s voting patterns, public statements, civic organization memberships, employment history, education, personal relationships, and political party in an effort to quantify each aspect of the member’s background to arrive at a balanced prediction of the member’s likelihood of voting favorably. That’s a fine, if formulaic, exercise done in a vacuum, and it ignores the political realities that motivate a politician. It is unreliable.
At the same hearing, the audience is packed with local voters, many known to the council members, all wearing bright pink “Kill the Mall” T-shirts. An ocean of pink fills the hall, leaving standing room only, and spills into the hallway. Now, how do you think the board will vote?
The citizen group leader places a fat petition with hundreds of signatures from registered voters opposing the mall on the council desk. Now, how do you think the council will vote?
One by one, two dozen citizens take the microphone and testify that the mall will destroy their quality of life; bring traffic gridlock; endanger their children; invade their privacy; attract the criminal element; inflict their quiet residential community with noise, litter, fumes, and trespassers; damage the green space; endanger wildlife habitat; and bankrupt small merchants. Now, how will the council vote?
The neighbors testify that the developer has ignored their efforts to set up a meeting (or worse, has treated them rudely at a meeting called to discuss the project). Now, how will the members vote?
The council members’ individual backgrounds are relevant, and some analysis is helpful in devising ways to influence a given member’s vote. But the key point is that background indicates how a politician will act when other influences are not at work. In the real world, other influences are always at work, and political impacts (such as hearing turnout, crowds of neighbors, and petition drives) have a telling impact on political decision making.
In an era of satellite television and reclining easy chairs, rousing the public to confront the political issue is not always easy. But once inspired (or provoked), citizens can be remarkably determined.
In one case, a developer who was asked to pay the neighbors $100,000 for the impacts of his major project on their neighborhood rejected the request, saying, “You haven’t done me $100,000 worth of damage.” The neighbors took that insult as a challenge. They brought the project to a screeching halt, and the site remains vacant to this day. They did a good deal more than $100,000 worth of damage.