The power of independents in contested land use cases

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By Jay Vincent,
Senior Vice President, Energy, The Saint Consulting Group

When describing the various constituencies that we are charged with targeting, educating and mobilizing on various land use development projects, we commonly talk about vocal minorities and silent majorities.  But there’s a third constituency that is equally or more important to understand and engage in land use politics: independents.  That shouldn’t come as any surprise.  In political campaigns, stories are written, interviews conducted and polling fielded that chase the psychology of the independent “swing vote,” especially in contested races where its the key to winning.  Land use politics is no different.

In many projects that automatically solicit the involvement of NIMBYs or special interests like business associations and labor organizations that have a direct or indirect financial interest, it is tough for local elected officials to figure out where a majority of their “real” residents are in terms of support.  These organizations certainly have a voice and are welcome to the process, but elected officials who have been through the ringer of contentious real estate and development projects do start making assumptions about their involvement.  Generally, chambers of commerce and other pro-business organizations support more development.  Alternatively, environmental, historic preservation and other land conservation organizations are skeptical at the start.  So it’s not unexpected when they receive letters, communiqués and testimony advocating one way or another.

So what’s to swing a decision-maker?  I like to call them the independent, “unusual suspects”  — the person who doesn’t typically show up to public hearings, isn’t with business alliance X or environmental group Y, but is at the podium tonight railing for or against this project.  In the mind of an elected official, one might think of these independents: If they’re motivated to engage on this project it must be important, and if they’re missing American Idol tonight to lend their voice to this application, they might just take a moment to go vote at the local high school next time I’m up for election.  Maybe even based on this project.  How many of them are for or against?

The competition between proponents and opponents becomes a race to the finish in terms of whoever educates independents first, best and last to then tune in and turn out.  Especially when a project has received such high exposure that most everyone knows about it, and the usual suspects have all put a stake in the ground in terms of their position.  The outreach effort is considerable, but so is the return when it means getting a permit to build.

Unfortunately, we see many examples of applicants just tapping the expected parties and stopping short of engaging independents to participate in the approval process on special use permits, re-zonings and regulatory approval public input proceedings.  Recently, in my own backyard, the Potomac Appalachian Transmission Highline (PATH) project was in the line of fire during a series of public meetings to site a 10.5-mile stretch of a 765 kv transmission line in Loudoun County, Virginia http://loudounextra.washingtonpost.com/news/2009/aug/08/power-line-hearings-come-loudoun/ The State Corporation Commission must approve the project, but the local Loudoun County Board also has a stake, in the form of a whether to grant a conservation easement as part of the proposed route.

Having no position on the matter short of professional curiosity, I was interested to read that it appeared only some businesses and union members showed up to support the project in the face of many local residents opposed from western Loudoun.  In my own humble opinion, PATH lost an opportunity to demonstrate support from the region’s residents.  Are businesses and union members “real” people?  Sure.  Could they be impacted? Unquestionably.  But the result was a minority of those interests versus a majority of residents in the local community.  I’m not sure the SCC got the message that PATH has public support.

On tough contested land use cases, pushing independents into the democratic public hearing process is the American (and the right) Way.

Jay Vincent is senior vice president for energy, The Saint Consulting Group, email vincent@tscg.biz and phone 312.970.5770 Ext: 7502

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