By Christopher Hopkins
Senior Vice President, Aggregates and Mining
The Saint Consulting Group
You drill to confirm that the product on the site is suitable, and your consultants conduct scientific studies to show your quarry expansion or greenfield project won’t damage water sources or the environment. The results are good, and you’re ready to file for permits.
But not so fast. You could be making a very costly mistake if you neglect to do your homework on the politics involved in the permitting process.
Politics is the great unknown in permitting any land use. What happens if a county commissioner or his mother lives three streets away from where you want to open your quarry? What if the mayor’s base of support resides in the surrounding neighborhood? What if the alderman’s brother-in-law operates a small family quarry in town? Even if that alderman recuses himself from voting on your application, what might go on behind the scenes when the board members talk?
In the course of more than 25 years conducting land use political campaigns on behalf of controversial development projects, The Saint Consulting Group has encountered these situations and countless others like them. Not knowing the answers before you begin can be fatal for your application.
The Benefits of a Political Due Diligence
You may be familiar with the community and think you have a good read on the situation surrounding your quarry application. But the most important information is what you don’t know.
It can be as simple as county or town staffers not wanting to be confrontational, so they tell you what they think you want to hear. We recently encountered a situation where an oversight agency staffer was telling our client the agency liked his mining project and that approval was taking so long because the office was being “thorough.” But when we sent someone to meet with that staffer as a concerned citizen, he was told the staff opposed the project and “it will never be approved under our watch.”
In an industry where controversy is common and the financial benefits to a municipality can be substantial, elected officials may truly want to approve your project but are afraid to because of political reasons. Wouldn’t it benefit you to know in advance who on the council is most susceptible to constituent pressure and where their allegiances lay?
What You Should Learn
Some essential questions can be answered by conducting political due diligence before you begin the application process.
Your intelligence gathering should produce a complete understanding of every required approval on the local, state and federal levels — including all boards, commissions and agencies required to make a recommendation or a final vote. The report should include a concise timeline for each agency and board, identify all possible public hearings (both optional and required), rules of conduct for each hearing, and any public comment periods.
The rules governing public hearings become important as you plan your strategy for each meeting. The rules may differ from one community to another — some allocate a specific amount of time for an entire hearing, some allocate a time limit per speaker, and yet others have no rules regarding public comment or speakers, so they can blabber as long as they want and the hearing can be continued over several evenings.
Some communities set a time limit on the application process. We have seen some that require a final decision a zoning request within 60 days after the application is filed. Some communities and agencies set time guidelines for each step of the process, and yet others have no time limits.
Your due diligence report should include the regulations governing the approval process. In most communities, for example, the planning commission provides a recommendation to the governing board. But in others a negative recommendation initiates the need for a “supermajority” of the approving board.
It is essential to get an unbiased read on the politics on every level before you apply for permits. You need to know what to expect from the elected and appointed officials, and whether they are telling you the straight story about your prospects.
Identify the political alliances on approving boards, and know which officials are susceptible to constituent pressure (and to which constituent groups they owe allegiance). Did Councilor Jones get elected as a result of his participation in a previous anti-development effort? If Commissioner X is supportive of your project, does he have allies on the board who will likely go along? Or perhaps foes who will automatically take the opposing side?
Examine the campaign finance records of the elected decision-makers to identify their major contributors. Are those contributors likely to oppose your project? This key information could tell you in advance if you may encounter political roadblocks.
As hard as this is to believe, there are politicians who may tell you one thing and say the exact opposite to constituents. We have seen this with numerous projects. Appointed officials told our client his permitting was taking longer than anticipated, but told one of our people they opposed the project and were delaying until a new administration was elected that would not be as favorable to the project.
Meeting With the Public
Before filing your application and spending thousands of dollars on testing and environmental studies, find out who is likely to oppose you, who is likely to support you and what your closest neighbors think. The best way is to talk with them.
We strongly recommend that you speak to your neighbors on a one-to-one basis. You should do this without divulging the nature of your project or plans until you are ready for it be public information. Are there anti-development groups in town that will automatically oppose your project? Are your neighbors likely to oppose you, and if so, how vehement will their opposition likely be? You need to determine if there are neighborhood associations that have a built-in organization. Are there local chapters of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups?
Answering these questions will help you develop your strategy and accurately estimate an approval timeline and approval costs. This information will allow you to include in your strategy a plan to counter potential opponents and how to neutralize the arguments they will make. You will also be able to determine if the local residents are being influenced or led by someone or some group from outside the area.
Meet with your neighbors individually to explain the benefits of the project. The last thing you want to do is introduce your project to skeptical neighbors in a group setting that puts reasonable people in contact with rabid opponents before you’ve even had a chance to make your case.
All of these steps are taken for one reason — to know as much as you can prior to submitting your application. Knowing the answers to these questions will save you time and money in the long run. The sooner you can identify potential pitfalls, the earlier you can develop a campaign plan to overcome them. It is simply homework, and just as essential as environmental studies and as important as test drilling are to your project.
Politics has killed more projects than any of us would like to count. Identify political minefields early and you can take steps to overcome them. In the end, doing this homework will save you time and a lot of money.
Chris Hopkins is senior vice president for aggregates and mining, The Saint Consulting Group, email firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 615-656-3794