As Tip O’Neill learned from one of his neighbors after taking her vote for granted and losing his first election, “People like to be asked.” Even though Tip had known this neighbor for years and she voted for him, this legendary politician learned an invaluable lesson about cultivating political support.
This lesson speaks to one of the reasons why grassroots organizing is so effective. Not only is grassroots organizing the most persuasive form of voter outreach but, more simply, it engenders respect and trust. It should come as no surprise that this is a lesson that is directly applicable to land use politics. However, it is astounding how often we see developers neglect engaging residents, especially those that live within close proximity to their projects.
Moreover, we have seen developers survey land and place stakes in the ground near immediate abutters for controversial land use development projects without even bothering to notify neighbors what they were proposing. Under these circumstances, the best case scenario is that developers may be able to regain neighbors’ trust, but it will certainly prolong the development timeline. The worst case scenario is that trust is never regained and, as a result, neighbors retain legal counsel and the project is derailed for years or indefinitely.
Even if developers think they are unlikely to gain the support of nearby neighbors, it is crucial that they reach out to them. First, they may be able to convert opponents into supporters by addressing neighbors’ concerns. Second, they may find issues on which they can compromise through negotiations based on mutual gains. Third, if they can’t find issues on which they can compromise, they could at least mitigate the opposition. And, fourth, even if the opposition can’t be mitigated, the developer can always preserve its reputation by being proactive and engaging the community. This is essential as each project sets a precedent for the next one and any missteps by the developer will be dredged up by the opposition in the future.
Regardless of the outcome, developers need to reach out to neighbors because “People like to be asked.” Developers should also make sure that they ask before stakes are in the ground.
Owen Eagan is a Senior Consultant for The Saint Consulting Group, email firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 781-831-2494.