Playing Offense & Defense in Land Use Politics

The Saint ReportNIMBY, Planning and Zoning, saintblog, Thought Leadership

From NIMBY Wars: The Politics of Land Use

NIMBY WarsBy P. Michael Saint,
Chairman and CEO &
Patrick Fox, President, The Saint Consulting Group

The right to advocacy involves both the right to favor a land use decision and the right to oppose one. Organized citizens oppose projects they perceive as undesirable; business competitors and developers have the right to do likewise. When the two assist one another, true land use politics is born.

The clearest explanation of this phenomenon is to think in terms of a sports competition. When Team A is seeking to reach the goal, sports aficionados say it is playing offense. It is mounting an offense to score. When Team A seeks to prevent Team B from reaching its goal, it is said that Team A is playing defense. It is defending the goal against the opponents’ offensive. Similarly, when a developer seeks to win approval for his development proposal, he is playing offense—seeking to achieve his goal. When he works to prevent approval for a competing project, he is playing defense—seeking to block opponents of the project from achieving their goal.

The rules of engagement differ markedly depending on whether one is engaged in offense or defense. For now, it is enough to note that in land use politics, both offense and defense campaigns make use of citizen advocates for strategic and political reasons: because of the citizens’ inherent credibility and effectiveness.

On the offense side, the effort to get a project approved and permitted organizes natural supporters to carry the issue, works to neutralize or marginalize opponents whose efforts can damage the chances of approval, and stresses the benefits to the community through the citizen advocates organized for the purpose. Those advocates will express their support in their own words and from their own points of view, a much more effective approach than a canned list of talking points from the PR agency. They will also sway others who know and respect them and will deter those who might have reservations about the project but don’t want to offend a neighbor or old friend, and they can dissuade, neutralize, or turn at least some opponents because they clearly speak from their own viewpoints and not as hirelings of the developer.

The challenge for the offense side is that most people who might favor the project are not so rabid in their support that they will miss their favorite television shows to attend hearings and sit for hours at town hall, especially on a weeknight after a hard day’s work. There is a good deal of difference between signing a petition in support of a development and getting in the car and driving to town hall. Unless they belong to an organization with its own agenda that can round them up and get them to attend hearings, supporters are difficult to corral and even harder to keep committed.

On the defense side, the effort to block a project from being approved and permitted organizes natural opponents to carry the issue, works to neutralize or marginalize supporters (by attacking their credibility, in most cases), and stresses the risks, costs, and drawbacks to the community from the perspective of the citizens. Those advocates will express their opposition in their own words and from their own points of view, a much more effective approach than reciting a list of bullet points from the competing PR agency.

Since a hefty majority of residents in the community will oppose development of almost any sort—and are particularly hostile to large, controversial uses—locating and recruiting opponents of a project is much easier than finding advocates, and they usually require little in the way of convincing to attend hearings to express their opposition. But opponents also need a good deal more care and attention than supporters do because their personal reasons for opposition, while honest and compelling, are often not sufficient legally or politically for the permitting board to reject the project. Thus, land use consultants make certain that the points the opponents make include sufficient references to sound legal reasons for rejection that the permitting board can rely on in writing its official decision.

Generally, the most strenuous opponents of the project are found in its immediate environs. Neighbors, especially residential neighbors, will oppose any development that promises to bring change, which is to say, any development at all. Add to these the interest groups that have their own agendas, and a coalition is quickly formed.

In general, then, on the offense side, supporters are difficult to find, but the land use consultant can publicly identify the developer and work openly with those who have reason to support the project. On the defense side, opponents are easy to find, but the land use consultant (and the client) must be wary, since it is the credibility of the citizens, not of the anonymous funder of the citizen group, that will carry the day.

Mike Saint is chairman and CEO of The Saint Consulting Group, email:
Patrick Fox is president of The Saint Consulting Group, email: