Von Clausewitz on zoning wars: commit resources, get good info, build a crowd

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 By P. Michael Saint

CEO, The Saint Consulting Group

von-clausewitzWhen Prussian soldier and writer Carl Von Clausewitz wrote his classic book, “On War” in the 1830s, his words were directed at the philosophy, strategy and tactics of successful ground wars in 19th Century Europe. He did not envision that his ideas would be equally relevant to real estate zoning battles in 21st Century America.

Fifteen years ago, most new commercial and residential real estate projects (except some on the northeast Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the US,) were easily approved at the local level. New developments were seen as beneficial. They showed community progress, contributed needed jobs and taxes, and gave local politicians something to brag about.

That has changed.

Today from small towns in the Midwest to suburbs on both coasts to cities in the South, citizens are opposing all kinds of new projects: big boxes, Wal-marts, shopping malls, power plants, cell towers, subdivisions, apartment complexes, affordable housing, industrial parks and even churches, schools and playgrounds.

Fifteen years ago such opposition was mostly in overbuilt coastal areas and was led by the classic NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) homeowner. Opponents now include various ad hoc citizen groups with names like “Citizens for Responsible Growth”, environmentalists opposing increased traffic and pollution; preservationists hoping to save old buildings; the new “Smart growth” and anti-sprawl planning movements; American Indian tribes protecting burial grounds and even existing retailers who have figured out it’s a better financial investment to use zoning bylaws to stop new market entrants than to compete with them after they open a new location.

Traditional real estate developer arguments for “new jobs and new taxes” are falling on deaf ears. And local politicians, who can count, realize there is no political gain in approving projects when opponents outnumber supporters by, two to one, three to one and even 10 to one at public hearings.

To be successful today, the real estate developer must assume every proposal will be opposed and that every project will require a political campaign with Von Clausewitz-like tactics to be successful. Here are just a few words from Von Clausewitz and their modern application.

COMMITMENT OF RESOURCES — Von Clausewitz: “…If we desire to defeat the enemy, we must proportion our efforts to his powers of resistance.” These days, opponents bring large war chests, expensive hired guns and large crowds to the fight. Real estate developers must be prepared to bring sufficient resources to match or exceed those forces. Failure to properly prepare will lead to wasted opportunities, extensive delays and ultimate defeat. Unfortunately, there are few cheaply won contests these days.

GET GOOD INFORMATION — Von Clausewitz: “…Great part of the information obtained in War is contradictory; a still greater part is false, and by far the greatest part is of doubtful character.” Many developers go in to a new project making too many assumptions or basing their strategies on limited “insider” information and misinformed opinions. These days the successful strategy requires polling and detailed political research to determine likely opponents and what can be done about them; potential supporters and how to motivate them and local politicians and the factors that will influence their decisions.

DELAYS BENEFIT THE DEFENSE – Von Clausewitz believed that the defender has an advantage and delay often works for the defense. This is certainly true in zoning battles. In many jurisdictions, new projects require rezoning, which often takes a super majority vote of the city council or county commission. This means the “defense’ only need s 1/3 plus 1 to prevail – a far simpler task than winning 2/3 plus 1. In expensive development projects, delays can be costly, so the longer the delay the defender can create the better chance the developer will run out of resources or simply reach the point that the project is no longer financially viable. As Von Clausewitz wrote: To increase the probability of success, wear out the enemy which,“amounts in practice to a gradual exhaustion of the physical powers and of the will by the long continuance of exertion.”

BUILD A CROWD — Von Clausewitz: “…the superiority in numbers is the most important factor in the result of a combat…the greatest possible number of troops should be brought into action at the decisive point.” In zoning fights, locally appointed and elected officials usually vote for the side with the most supporters in the room. No matter what they say in the backroom, the public official fears making what he perceives to be the unpopular choice. And, if he philosophically leans toward approving a project, he needs the “political cover” of being able to tell critics, “yes, but there were just as many (or more) in favor as there were opposed.”

For a real estate developer who wants to win, a Von Clausewitz like plan and operatives trained in the art of winning zoning battles is now a routine part of the process.

(Mike Saint is CEO of Hingham, MA based The Saint Consulting Group, which has been winning local zoning battles since 1984.)

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