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From NIMBY Wars: The Politics of Land Use

politics is localBy P. Michael Saint, Chairman and CEO &
Patrick Fox, President, The Saint Consulting Group

Land use decisions are really political decisions and are subject to the same rules of play that control political campaigns for office, ballot questions, or passing a bill in the council, legislature, or parliament: plan a campaign, devise strategy, identify leaders, organize field troops, anticipate opposition tactics and plan countermeasures, execute the campaign program, and get out the vote effectively to win.

Land use decisions are political because the reasons for and against a given decision are subjective and therefore are affected by individuals’ own perceptions and agendas. Casting an agenda in lofty moral, nostalgic, or sentimental terms—to save an endangered species, to return to a simpler time, or to encourage walking and biking for good health—does not alter its political nature; it highlights it. For every good land use intention expressed in ethical, nostalgic, or sentimental terms, there is a downside, though the price is not usually paid by the advocate of the high-toned values. Thus, activists’ demands to preserve the forest for future generations may mean that the landowner cannot get her land rezoned, cannot engage in logging on her own property, cannot use the land for development, or cannot subdivide and sell it.

Any agenda that seeks to control or influence public decision making is, by definition, political, no matter how morally superior its stated goals. Environmentalists who want to protect the red-bellied turtle and its habitat are no less political than the people who want to reserve the best scenic views for McMansions and zone apartment houses out of existence, even though the former consider themselves objectively right-thinking and above the fray, and believe that their logic and motives are unassailable. Might such people harbor an unexpressed elitism, classism, or racism? Certainly, but the more important fact in land use politics is that they use political tools—the hammer and tongs of campaign strategy and tactics—to achieve their goals. The battle, therefore, is joined; it is a political fight. To win, political techniques are required.

Mike Saint is chairman and CEO of The Saint Consulting Group, email: msaint@tscg.biz.
Patrick Fox is president of The Saint Consulting Group, email:
fox@tscg.biz