Getting officials to say “yes” to landfills – a guide to land use politics

The rampant politicization of how development proposals are approved or denied in the United States poses enormous risk for those who hope to build controversial projects like a landfill or waste treatment plant.

Land use permitting is now a political process. For the most-unwanted local projects – especially a landfill, opposed by 76 percent of Americans when proposed for their hometown – it is a battleground pitting developers against highly motivated and organized citizens.

Politically savvy opponents know how to direct intense constituent pressure on local officials. They 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. Politicians rarely will vote against the wishes of these angry voters.

So, what can you do to overcome this negative mindset?

One thing not do is walk right into city hall confident that public officials eager for new jobs and tax revenue will smooth the way. And don’t assume your project can be built “as of right’’ because it fully complies with zoning regulations, because you’ll be sadly disappointed.

Applicants must go into the process ready to run a campaign, anticipating that citizen opponents will begin organizing to protect their turf as soon as they learn about the proposal.

The first step should be a comprehensive community and political due diligence investigation. Understand the political climate in and around your project before you go public. Identify the likely opponents and potential 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 key stakeholders must be timed and targeted. Leverage the public support of all people and organizations in the community who stand to benefit in any way from your project. 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.

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. They need political ‘cover’ if they are going to defy the angry demands of NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard).

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.

The Advocacy Pyramid

Winning community support may seem difficult, but reach out and you find a wide range of people – from those who are unaware, all the way up to those who are committed to support you. We call this an Advocacy Pyramid – everyone is somewhere along a Value and Quantity scale. The higher up the pyramid, the more valuable they are to your campaign; the wider the category, the more people are in that pool. Moving people up the scale from unaware to vocal support is how you get to ‘Yes.’

Where are the NIMBYs? Not in this pyramid. Trying to convert opponents is a waste of time and resources. You can’t ignore them, but your campaign is much better served focusing on people you can convert.

Our land use campaigns have two goals: move the unawares up to vocal advocates, and turn them out. Some unaware or undecided people do not care enough to pick a side. Those who are receptive need your help – give them information and persuade them.

Model Outcome

In this example – based on an actual project our firm handled – our client wants to expand an existing landfill. They have been a good corporate citizen for 25 years, and the expansion will add substantial dollars to the local tax base.

Opponents raised common concerns: odor and noise, truck traffic, property values, project need, aesthetics, groundwater pollution. The next landfill is 30 miles away, and the county’s largest employer is the landfill’s biggest user.

With this campaign, we spent little energy per person on the bottom of the pyramid (use mass communications, low-context communications) and more energy for people higher up – face-to-face conversations, high-context communications.

This brings us to the ‘Virtuous Cycle’ – the more information given to them, the more they can effect change, and this is how people can be persuaded to become more openly supportive.

Control the debate and drive the message. We flooded the target community with our message, pumping traffic into the lower half of the pyramid. We also ran an initial voter ID program to identify as many possible and actual supporters as we could.

Vocal advocates should be engaged regularly; leveraging this group and guiding them to support and motivate, encouraging and empowering supporters, and further spread the message. At the action step – a city council hearing or a vote – they help carry the message.

In this case, we focused scarce resources to move people up the pyramid, leveraged support to demonstrate what you can bring to the community, and persuaded elected officials to say “Yes” to the project.

—Jesse McKnight is executive vice president for The Saint Consulting Group, a political land use consulting firm.