These characters show up at every public hearing.
You know they’re coming but are you ready for them?
By Patrick Fox
CEO, Saint Consulting
Opponents dominate public hearings these days. They are passionate, motivated and ready to rumble while supporters tend to stay home. Local politics kill good projects every day. Successful developers have got to be even more prepared, proactive and strategic to deal with the opposition that is absolutely going to be in that room. Here are just a few of the Usual Suspects you are likely to encounter and some strategies to effectively deal with them.
The Anxious Abutter
Rightly concerned about what happens right next to their home and how it may impact their property values and quality of life, they are the most motivated and skeptical participants. This is not about smart planning and theory for them. It’s personal. Any developer who has not reached out to them directly well before a public hearing has made an inexcusable mistake. Their legitimate and illegitimate concerns need to be addressed in some manner. Many will be reasonable and will work cooperatively to understand and address issues while others will be intractably opposed refusing any attempt at dialogue or presentation of facts. Always remember that a vocal minority of abutters can be negated or overwhelmed by support from the rest of the community. The difficulty is in identifying and pulling out more apathetic supporters at crucial moments. Demonstrate support using cards, letters, petitions and any means available to show that the passionate opponents in the room do not speak for the entire community. Understand that everyone in town has a voice and political power – not just the abutters. Ignore them at your peril. Like winter, they are coming.
The Ambitious Activist
Concerned about the environment, historical preservation, traffic or the plight of a dwindling species, they are committed and passionate. They are easy to identify as they show up for every major public hearing so there is no reason not to reach out to them early. They too are definitely coming. Their agendas vary broadly and figuring out what truly motivates them is the key to finding a way to work together. Some are looking for name recognition, headlines and a victory to generate donations while others are simply committed to their cause and may be willing to work toward real solutions. Determine quickly what motivates them and have a strategy. Is it possible to give them a victory while still accomplishing your objective? If not, we are going to have to counter them point-by-point and make sure they do not dominate discourse.
The Willful Wannabe
(Highly Dangerous – Approach with Caution) If you want to run for an elected position or trade up for a higher office, you want to pick a fight that will rally voters behind you, get headlines and boost your name recognition. You cannot pick a better target than an out of town developer who is looking to build in your community. Leveraging fear of change, suspicion against “greedy” developers and pervasive and extreme cynicism around government decision making, leading this charge is a candidate’s dream. The need for your project, the community benefits package and the quality of your design and planning are completely irrelevant here. The goal is to crush you and claim victory while standing on your corpse with a raised fist in front of as many reporters as possible. There are a couple of ways to proceed. The best strategy is to find a way to make the Wannabe a hero by giving them something they “forced” out of you because of their “superior negotiating and persuasive skills.” If you understand what motivates them and what they want, try to find a way to give it to them. If you can’t, then it’s political hardball and you will have to beat them at their own game and overwhelm them.
Angry, cynical and not restricted by the limited confines of facts and reality, they will not want to talk to you and will resist any attempts at outreach. They will not believe anything you say but they also do not believe anything the local officials might try to tell them either. They are likely to yell things out at inappropriate times including “bullshit” while you are making a formal presentation. You will find that the local officials probably know them well and will roll their eyes at a mention of their name. They have seen them before at every other public hearing. Document a few attempts to talk to The Rabble-Rouser just so you can say you made an attempt. “As I attempted to explain to Mr. Rouser on three separate occasions when he declined to talk to me…” They have no credibility or influence with officials but they can be very damaging at public hearings or in the local paper. Identify them in advance, attempt and document outreach attempts and make sure you overwhelm them with other support. Factually discredit as much of what they say as possible while being respectful, professional and courteous. Be careful that they do not pollute your public hearing by dominating the debate, intimidating more rational neighbors and making the project seem too controversial for other residents to express support or engage in a dialogue. With a little rope, they will often go too far and hang themselves.
The Clandestine Counsel
An attorney with a dubious source of funding and curiously quiet clients, their strategy is often death by a thousand cuts. They are not here to negotiate but to stop (or illegally delay) you because they are funded by your competitor. They may or may not have real clients and often those clients do not truly know what they are involved in. The “clients” are usually embarrassed to discover that they are but a pawn in an anti-competitive grudge match between two large companies. The strategy to deal with this can be complex because you are now dealing with paid professionals backed by well-funded interests but essentially you follow the money, discredit them and their true intent and make the passive and unwitting “clients” uncomfortable, active and public participants in the process. While completely legal if done correctly, competitors organizing and funding opposition is fraught with peril for those who do not know what they are doing. Watch for them to step over the line and exploit it to expose the shenanigans.
The Exploitive Extortionist
Driven by urban legends of abutters who made a fortune because they happened to own a key parcel that could grind to a halt or delay a big budget project, these ill-advised gold diggers expect a new pool, hard cash or for you to buy their home at 10x market value. It’s extortion and they think they have a gun to your head. Work around them for as long as you can and keep building your base of community support. Expose their greed and let the neighbors and community leaders exert neighborhood pressure on them. If they do not have a lawyer who can explain what is and is not possible and reasonable, encourage them or help them to secure one as best you can.
The Steadfast Senior
There is no more powerful demographic group in most communities than senior citizens. They vote…every time and every elected official knows it. Most senior citizens are not hanging around public hearings. They are generally boring and they go too late! If they show up, it’s because it’s an issue they care about or somebody organized getting them there. If your opponents got to them first and made the case against you, you made a big mistake. Seniors are the easiest group to identify and get to with senior housing and activity centers in most communities. They can sign letters, support cards, petitions and be bused into hearings. If you ignore them, your opponents most likely will not.
The Payroll Patriot
They are wired into the inner workings of municipal government and they are looking out not only for the best interests of the community but their own self-interest. Municipal employees like cops, firefighters, teachers, DPW workers and City Hall staff are directly and personally impacted by municipal budget decisions. If your project is going to cost the city money, they will oppose it. If it is going to generate additional tax revenue, they will support it. Quantifying those revenue increases and discussing how new funds could be used to help the school budget or for equipment for firefighters or police officers or for salary increases for municipal employees will generate support from people who are active, well known by officials, central to the community’s underground rumor mill and who are already know what room the hearing is in. The local officials also know they vote in every election.