All in Favor of Opposition: Study Reveals Overwhelming Opposition to Land Development

January 1, 2007 · by P. Michael Saint

No matter the type of project a developer wants to build in 2007, fiercely committed citizen opponents are almost certain to say, “NO.”

No matter the type of project a developer wants to build in 2007, fiercely committed citizen opponents are almost certain to say, “NO.”

Across the United States, land use permitting for nearly every variety of development – from casinos and power plants to retail and multi-family housing – is increasingly a battleground pitting developers against highly motivated and organized citizens.

Recent surveys find that 73 percent of Americans say their hometown is just fine the way it is or is already overdeveloped. A startling 70 percent say they would use tax dollars to keep land in their community undeveloped.

Understanding the dynamic of this attitude of increasing opposition is essential for any professional embarking on the ever-lengthening journey through the public land use approvals process.

The Saint Consulting Group, which practices the new discipline of land use politics, launched the Saint Index in 2005 to quantify the public attitudes we encounter while working on hundreds of real estate projects for clients across the US and in Britain. For the second consecutive year, our survey of 1,000 adults – conducted in the fourth quarter of 2006 – found Americans strongly opposed to real estate development projects. US residents are twice as likely to actively oppose a development project as support one.

On the local level, development has become a political issue. A candidate’s position on growth and land-use matters a great deal to voters – and politicians – are starting to recognize the risks they take in ignoring the depth of citizen dissatisfaction with how their communities grow.

Ninety-three percent of Americans say that a candidate’s position on new development and growth is important when they decide for whom to vote. And 75 percent give their local elected officials a C or worse when it comes to deciding what does and does not get built in their communities. Cynicism about the development process is also growing, with 75 percent of Americans saying the relationship between elected officials and developers makes the permitting process unfair.

This increased cynicism has led to a wave of legislation in 2006 designed to halt the use of eminent domain for private development in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s Kelo decision that local governments may seize private property for economic development purposes. We found 71 percent of Americans supporting state laws that halt the use of eminent domain for private development.

Why the opposition to development? The primary reasons for opposition are protection of property values (36 percent) and preservation of community character (29 percent). The environment received an 11 percent response.

Americans are defending their communities from sprawl and over-development – but their primary motivation is the defense of their real estate values. Of the 70 percent of adults interviewed who said they support using tax dollars to keep land undeveloped, 38 percent said they feel this “strongly.”

Today’s heightened opposition includes intense constituent pressure on local officials to reject new project proposals. Angry constituents pack public hearings, generate phone calls to city councilors and town board members, and make it clear that they will vote for candidates who oppose new development.

These protectors of the status quo are motivated and organized. They know that delay itself can sometimes kill a project, or allow for time to rewrite a community’s comprehensive plan, amend the zoning bylaws, rezone a proposed big box site, or establish dimension requirements, minimum lot sizes and building caps that make the development impossible, or impossibly expensive.

In many parts of the country, fierce retail competition has led competitors, intent on protecting market share, to help fund citizen opposition to their rivals’ projects, or even publicly oppose the permits themselves. This once-unheard-of tactic has spread even to the hospital industry. News reports and court documents from California to Connecticut illustrate the ferocity and extreme lengths developers will go in defense of their retail space and market share.

The Saint Index found significant public support for new hospitals. Yet at the same time, hospitals in many areas of the country – non-profit and for-profit alike – face strong opposition when submitting plans for a new facility or expansion.

Seventy-one percent of Americans would support a new hospital in their community, the second most supported land-use we tested (single-family housing was supported by 84 percent). Ninety percent of respondents supported an increase in emergency room capacity at their local hospital.

Yet, across the country, hospital construction and expansion plans have encountered opposition campaigns at state, county, and local levels by competitors in the health care market or organized labor. Saint Consulting identified dozens of situations – from northern California to South Carolina – where hospitals in the same market are fighting over additional market share and the right to add new hospital beds to their facilities.

Some development sectors in the 2006 survey – apartments/condominiums, casinos, grocery stores, office buildings, large shopping centers, and single-family housing – actually encountered less opposition than a year earlier, although opposition still continues. But opposition increased towards biotech research facilities, landfills, power plants, and quarries.

Opposition to consumer behemoth, Wal-Mart, grew despite the fact that 61 percent of those interviewed say they like the big-box experience – just not in their own community.

Development sectors encountering less opposition in the 2006 survey than a year earlier were:

• Apartments/condominiums – 34 percent opposed [down from 48 percent last year]
• Casinos – 67 percent opposed [down from 80 percent]
• Grocery stores – 25 percent opposed [down from 33 percent]
• Office buildings – 40 percent opposed [down from 47 percent]
• Large shopping centers – 57 percent opposed [down from 62 percent]
• Single-family housing – 6 percent opposed [down from 13 percent]

Those that face even more opposition than in the 2005 Saint Index:
• Biotech research – 57 percent opposed [up from 48 percent last year]
• Landfills – 87 percent opposed [up from 82 percent last year]
• Power plants – 75 percent opposed [up from 66 percent]
• Quarries – 76 percent opposed [up from 63 percent]
• Wal-Mart – 68 percent opposed [up from 63 percent].

Those sectors that remained as equally opposed this year as last, tending to more opposition were home improvement centers – 56 percent in 2006, 55 percent in 2005 – and department stores – 55 percent (53 percent in 2005).

Michael Saint is Chairman and CEO of The Saint Consulting Group, a Boston based land-use and zoning conflict resolution firm founded in 1983. Mr. Saint worked as a journalist and political operative prior to founding The Saint Consulting Group. He holds an MBA from Vanderbilt University where he teaches regularly on management topics.

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