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
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
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.
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,
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
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