Perception is reality, fear of change drives opposition to development

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

(Editor’s note: Some of our newer readers are not familiar with NIMBY Wars – The Politics of Land Use. The Saint Report will post excerpts of the book, which is the culmination of 30 years of  land use battles by The Saint Consulting Group)

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

NIMBY WarsLand use proposals affect people’s perceptions—and in politics, perception is reality. A person who lives on a river will oppose construction of a chemical plant upstream, regardless of how much he is assured that there will be no pollution. His perception of the potential danger is real, and it is irrelevant whether the perception reflects objective truth. What counts is that the person believes it and acts accordingly.

A person who farms in a semirural environment will oppose development of a gambling casino resort, no matter that it will be built five miles away in a clearing in the woods, and no matter what mitigation the proponents offer. A suburbanite will oppose development of a big-box store in her community, even if she and her family habitually shop at the same store elsewhere, and even if the developer promises millions of dollars in buffers, traffic improvements, and other mitigation.

Whether the perception that the bigbox store is undesirable is based on rumor, news reports, experience, or gut instinct, it cannot be denied or ignored. The Saint Index® (which is discussed in detail in Chapter 11) has consistently found that people want shopping centers, but not nearby; they want electricity, but not the power plant; they want cell phones, but not the towers; they want schools, but not next door; they want trash disposal, but not in their backyards.

Because these projects are objectionable, citizens will oppose them, organize against them, and bring political pressure to influence public officials who have the authority to approve them. Those who use political pressure most effectively win the vote. Whether opponents are dismissed as short-sighted reactionary practitioners of NIMBY (not in my backyard), CAVE (citizens against virtually everything), or BANANA (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything), the fact is that citizens today are better organized and far more effective at delaying and blocking development projects than ever before.

Nearly everyone will object to a hazardous waste plant, garbageprocessing facility, or sewage treatment plant in the neighborhood. Because of their unpopularity, such undesirable LULUs (locally unwanted land uses) have historically been sited in poor and minority communities lacking political influence and therefore unable to effectively object. In 1984 the California Waste Management Board paid a consulting firm $500,000 to define communities that wouldn’t resist siting LULUs, particularly trash incinerators. The resulting report is now used (and posted on the Internet) as an aid in siting LULUs. The communities least likely to resist, according to the study, included those described as southern or Midwestern, rural, conservative, Republican, low-income, less educated, and blue collar.

Among those most likely to resist were communities described as Northeastern or western, urban, liberal, Democrat, middle- and upper-income, college educated, and white-collar professional. The social justice movement now fights the imposition of LULUs on the defenseless, but the point is that LULU-receptive neighborhoods would not be victimized in the first place if they had political clout.

Land use experts often distinguish between “real” and “perceived” controversies in land use planning in the belief that once opponents are disabused of their confusion, they will applaud a project that they formerly opposed. This is not the case. The neighbors’ opposition is not based on logic, and a controversy is no less real because it is perceived. In land use, as in all political debate, perception is reality; people act on their perceptions, whether or not those notions are objectively true. What people think and believe informs how they act, speak, and vote, even (or especially) if they are, objectively speaking, wrong. Besides, in land use, there’s plenty of room for subjectivity. Is a traffic study ever “accurate” in an objective sense? Do the buffer zones really shield the neighbors? It’s all subjective, and it doesn’t matter anyway because political fights are based on emotion, not logic. If neighbors believe their neighborhood is being treated unfairly, the developer’s insistence that it is not carries no weight whatsoever.

Background on Nimby Wars: The Politics of Land Use is found at, and the book is available at the following fine booksellers: