I had the pleasure of speaking recently to the Bingham Fellows at Leadership Louisville in Kentucky. The group is looking at infrastructure improvements for their city and how to win public support for them. Here is a very condensed version of my message to them:
First, I said, all land use approvals are political, and politicians make their decisions based on how they assess the political ramifications of those decisions. Based on Saint Index polling data, most Americans do not want anything new built in their communities.
People are more likely to oppose projects, both public and private, than support them. If confronted with a large group of voters who oppose a project and no countervailing demonstration of support, elected politicians are apt to vote against new development.
NIMBYs are afraid of change and are afraid new development will hurt them in some way i.e. – lower their property values, increase crime, harm water or air quality, or change the character of their community. They have “not in my backyard” reasons to oppose public projects, but they also feel those projects will make new private development possible, which is another reason to oppose them.
Because they are afraid, NIMBYs react emotionally and become passionate opponents of development, even of public improvements like bridges, mass transit, or water treatment facilities.
Supporters seldom are emotional about development and therefore do not participate in the public political approval process unless recruited to do so. These days, private developers will often pay consultants to organize supporters to show support for their projects at city hall. But government agencies and elected officials seldom will devote public resources to building public support.
Without organized support, public projects will see only crowds of opponents, making it hard for politicians to continue voting for them.
Smart politicians are recruiting private sector groups and businesses to fund “Friends of the Project” coalitions, who will raise and spend the money needed to marshal voter support to give political cover to friends of the city council and counterbalance the pressure brought by NIMBYs.
P. Michael Saint is chairman and chief executive of The Saint Consulting Group, email firstname.lastname@example.org