How to Overcome NIMBY Opposition to Your Project
The public record is crammed with postcards, petitions and letters in opposition to your project. The room is packed with shouting, placard-waving opponents. Public officials seem reluctant to establish eye contact with you and agency staff continues to insist that you "do something" about community opposition. What do you do?
Opposition or Support?
When facing community resistance, you must first determine how public opinion — public support and opposition — affects the political decisions about your project, and then plan an appropriate course of action.
Do you need to reduce neighborhood opposition? Would it be more effective to simply mobilize supporters to attend a hearing? Or should you do both?
The distinction between community opposition and community support is critical.
Your potential supporters are a totally different audience than your opponents, and supporters won't be moved by the same messages that influence detractors. Rather than wasting your resources with an overly-expansive community outreach program, you need to diagnose your primary community relations needs at the outset of the development process.
Four Causes of Opposition
Let's assume that you need to reduce the number of opponents to your project, or, at a minimum, reduce the intensity of their hostility so that they stay home rather than show up at your planning or zoning board hearing.
Given that many outreach tactics can actually generate more community opposition than might already exist, you should focus your community relations program as sharply as possible so you don’t create even more hostility.
Citizens generally oppose land use projects for one of four reasons, and each requires a different community outreach response.
A tremendous amount of opposition is based on misperceptions or exaggerated fears of a project’s impact.
This type of opposition is the easiest to overcome. Developers should generally rely on unilateral communications — newsletters, fact sheets, etc. — or bilateral communications — one-on-one briefings — to educate people about their projects.
The large community meetings, public workshops and the other open-door forums that public agencies often insist upon are rarely effective informational events and should not be your sole outreach event. These meetings often do little more than provide venues that foster even more opposition. They enable potential opponents to meet each other, hear and adopt each other’s agendas and encourage activists to stake out extreme public positions to impress their constituents.
Questions and issues raised in these meetings usually cannot be adequately discussed because of time constraints, so what is discussed tends to be one-sided. In addition, attendees can be too embarrassed to admit that they don't understand your proposal, or too shy or otherwise reluctant to speak in front of a large crowd — so the questions that need to be answered might never be asked.
Using these meetings as your initial and primary community contact has other drawbacks as well. Providing too much information about your proposal can alert audience members to issues they had not considered.
Moreover, these types of meetings are inherently condescending.
Offering to "tell neighbors about the project" starts from the presumption that you alone are entitled to make decisions that affect the community. Having these meetings as your initial contact also suggests that you are willing to provide neighbors with information about a project that will be in their backyards only after you've made all the decisions about it.
Opposition to your project may have nothing to do with the project itself.
Some citizens get involved in land use debates in order to feel important or to justify their leadership roles in their community associations.
In addition, when neighbors feel that they aren't going to "win" many substantive points about your proposal, they may try to make the facts irrelevant by shifting the debate away from a rational consideration of your plan to an emotional confrontation. Emotional attacks are often an effective way for citizens to even the playing field and feel like a pivotal part of the decision-making process.
Meeting your opponents' emotional needs is usually the least expensive way to reduce opposition to your project. You may have to allow neighbors to vent their anger toward you, and you may have to apologize to them. You may even have to overcome your own anger and resentment and show neighbors the consideration they deserve. But generally, you don't have to make costly concessions to overcome opposition based on unmet emotional needs.
Some people perceive land use debates as basic moral conflicts between good and evil. Until relatively recently, progress and growth generally were considered morally good, with any environmental impacts in the name of achievement seen as purely incidental.
Over the past few decades, however, America has seen a major shift in its moral ideology as related to land use and economic development. A significant segment of society now believes that land has intrinsic value beyond its usefulness to humans and that preservation of the environment is itself an independent moral principle. For environmental moralists, ecological preservation is a higher moral goal than economic growth or property rights. Therefore, it is critical that you recognize if and when you are dealing with ethical extremists.
If you share your opponents' moral principles, then say so. If your opponents have a different priority on a particular value, then explore with them those priorities in relationship to their other values. They may hold strong beliefs about environmental protection, but how do those beliefs compare to other moral priorities such as affirmative action, property rights or concepts of fairness and equity?
Even though you and your opponents hold truly conflicting values, the clash does not have to result in deadlock. When land use conflicts appear to be caused by ethical disagreements, focusing on mutual interests and problems, rather than on conflicting values, can lead to resolution.
- Positive vs. Negative Interests
Land use projects tend to pit positive interests against negative interests. Most supporters will endorse your proposal when they believe it creates benefits that will improve their lives — new jobs, new services from the tax revenues your project will generate, even new housing opportunities.
But neighbors also have a fear of losing what they have now. Most people live where they do because they like it just the way it is. They don’t want more traffic, less wildlife or open fields, more crowded schools or other changes to the status quo.
For most people, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and the neighborhood they currently know and enjoy is worth a lot more to them than the speculative benefits you claim your project will bring. That is why it is so much easier for opponents to turn out troops to stop your project than it is for you to encourage residents to show up to support your plan.
You do have several tools you can use to help change people’s minds and build support for your project:
Developers often use rational persuasion — a logical presentation of the facts and issues — to convince citizens of the worth of the project.
Opponents rely heavily on emotional persuasion — personal attacks, peer pressure, guilt, appeals to fear and the like — to turn residents against you and your project.
Many people, however, respond to peripheral persuasion and use decision-making shortcuts to decide whether they believe and agree with you. "Everybody hates this so it must be a bad project." "She presented a lot of statistics, so she must be telling the truth." "All lawyers lie."
Developers often engage in negotiations with neighbors to resolve conflict.
It is critical to note here, however, that making concessions is usually the most costly — and least effective way — to resolve conflict. Concessions can cost you millions.
There are four major types of bargaining:
Compromise: If you are fighting about a single issue that can be easily divided — such as the height of a building or the number of units in a project — then you easily can reach a middle ground by compromising on that one issue.
Exchanging Concessions: If many issues are in dispute, then you will probably want to exchange or trade concessions by giving up something of lesser importance to you in order to gain a concession of more importance.
Expanding the Pie: If the total pool of potential resources seems too small to satisfy everyone, then you can expand the pie by going to stakeholders outside the debate for assistance in making the neighbors happy. The outside stakeholders typically can be city or county municipalities.
Joint Decision-Making: Opponents often believe that they should have decision-making powers equal to the developer and that joint problem-solving is appropriate. With joint problem solving, however, no development occurs at all unless both the owner and the neighbors are equally satisfied.
All community opposition is not alike and the wrong type of outreach response can create more problems than it solves. But by carefully diagnosing the cause of opposition and planning and putting into action an outreach program specifically tailored to respond to that cause, you can reduce citizen opposition to your project.
Debra Stein is the president of the San Francisco-based public affairs firm, GCA Strategies. She is the author of several books on NIMBYism and her firm specializes in controversial land use projects across the nation. For more information, e-mail Stein, call her at 415-391-4100 or visit the GCA Strategies Web site at www.gcastrategies.com.