Politics of Opposition

January 1, 2007 · by P. Michael Saint

What can developers do to overcome a negative mindset toward property development? One thing they should not do is approach the permitting process the way it has traditionally played out in America, where developers who want sites permitted went to city hall confident that public officials interested in new jobs and tax revenue would eagerly smooth the way.

Land use permitting is now a political process, and developers must go into the process ready to run a campaign – because chances are that citizen opponents will begin organizing to protect their turf as soon as they learn about any proposed development.

Organized opponents will politically hijack charrettes or other traditional efforts by project proponents to demonstrate goodwill and gain public support from stakeholders.

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. Elected officials are very unlikely to vote against their wishes.

Land-use politics is one way to block – or support – a building project. Developers, utilities, institutions, among many other sectors facing mounting opposition and permitting delays, need to face the political demands of the public approvals process, start outreach early, and mount aggressive campaigns to educate and organize the communities in which they propose to operate.

The first step in the process is research. Understand the political climate in and around your project before you go public. Identify the likely opponents and supporters. What are the political views on land use of the politicians who must approve the project? What is the history of the site? Have controversial developments been proposed for the location, or nearby, in the past?

Outreach to stakeholders must be timed and targeted. Elected officials and neighbors must be told about a project before they read it in the press, and before it begins to surface in rumors. Leverage the public support of all people and organizations in the community who stand to benefit in any way from your project.

Go door to door among residential neighbors. Explain the proposal and attempt to determine who will support it, who will stay neutral and who will oppose.

Realizing that the process is political, you must identify, recruit, organize and deliver real citizens to express their support to the local government officials. You need to find and organize supporters, and then motivate them to speak up at public hearings, sign petitions, call officials, write letters to the editor, and demonstrate sufficient public support so board members can vote in favor of your permits without fear that they are defying monolithic public opposition.

It’s not easy, because most people who support your project have no personal stake in getting off the sofa to demonstrate their backing. You must be resourceful and creative to maximize and leverage every expression of support, no matter how passive that first indication of support. It is a campaign.

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