By Bryan Mills, Division Manager, The Saint Consulting Group
The recent discussion concerning linear land use projects, originally introduced by Mike Saint in March, highlighted one overarching theme: with linear land use projects, a proactive approach works better.
Yet, despite the controversy these types of proposals engender for narrow corridor, cross-border transportation and power transmission projects, applicants continue to take a decidedly reactive approach to grassroots outreach and pro-project advocacy work. The result is an applicant (and by extension, a project) that finds itself continually playing “defense” with the public instead of controlling project-related information and proactively driving the positive impacts a particular venture will bring.
At some point in a transmission line project, for example, the applicant isrequired to provide notice to nearby landowners affected by the project. The typical approach is to follow the letter of the law in alerting nearby landowners. That is, applicants wait as long as possible to send out notice and then when doing so, only notify those the law absolutely requires (usually within a prescribed area, in feet or miles, around the project corridor).
In our work, we have found that the idea of “notice” need not be restricted by statutory requirements or strict adherence to a prescribed, limited area around a project’s path. For Saint Consulting, “notice” begins much earlier than prescribed by statute and certainly earlier than the typical linear land use project team. We have utilized a variety of approaches to introduce a proposal:
- Drive placement of media stories and opinion-editorial pieces in relevant outlets that raise the positive profile of the applicant. Stories that highlight an applicant, independent of any specific project, breed familiarity and can provide a more welcoming atmosphere for an eventual project.
- Identify key constituencies and grass-tops contacts in relevant communities and begin outreach to them early on in the process. Certainly this kind of outreach needs to be closely coordinated with the other facets of a project’s pre-filing phase, but these types of early “touches” can pay enormous dividends after a project comes fully in to the public eye.
- Identify known areas of unrest or potential communities where opposition could form. A review of conventional and social media outlets, along with the effective use of a phone identification program (the idea of “hot-spotting” is one my colleagues have referenced often in our discussion of linear land use projects to date) will make early outreach much more efficient and valuable
- When the time for official notice comes, go beyond the statutory guidelines and include more than just those that are absolutely required to receive notice. Many applicants are nervous about letting more people know about a project; the notion of “why wake a sleeping giant?” is pervasive with liner land use project teams. In our experience, however, having more people aware of a project early on is far better than surprising citizens later on in the process.
The benefits of an early and aggressive notice effort are many:
- An applicant is able immediately to begin building a concrete track record of reasonable interaction with the public (and ultimately decision-makers and regulators)
- The positive concept of transparency is immediately established: an applicant that proactively alerts the public has nothing to hide, and there are no surprises that can create the common, cynical notion of “back room deals” and a faceless corporate entity doing whatever they want in a citizen’s community
- Enemies and opponents are flushed out early and can be dealt with directly, allies can be secured that much earlier in the process, and early notice acts as the first “persuasion” activity for undecided citizens, who may have been inclined to oppose a project if surprised by an announcement later in the process.
Overall, more information, earlier on, is better than surprises and unexpected opposition later. While this may mean more soft costs upfront for a linear land use project, the ultimate benefits, including avoidance of costly appeals and prolonged public comment periods, far outweigh any of the additional upfront costs of undertaking such an effort.
Bryan Mills is division manager for New England, New York, New Jersey and Midwest for The Saint Consulting Group, email firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 781.749.7290 ext 7142