NIMBY and Building Local Political Support

Successful community relations can mean the difference between receiving your approval and looking for a new site. By acknowledging and addressing the opposition, you will begin to neutralize and defuse the NIMBY crowd and build support to help you secure the approval of your elected officials.

Darden Copeland

Proposed Landfill Project Derailed”; “Landfill Expansion Turned Down”; “Price Break Denied For Haulers Dumping Local Trash”; “Recycling Proposal Unanimously Rejected.” These are just some of the headlines the solid waste industry has seen recently. Across the country and abroad, well-planned waste projects are being denied at an alarming rate. Denied at a time when the local economies need the tax revenue and host fees the most. Denied at a time when competition should be welcomed. Denied at a time when the technological and engineering advances have reduced negative impacts more than ever before. So why are solid waste projects and proposals failing?

Managing Local Politics

In explaining to his son why he lost his race for city council in 1936, Thomas Phillip O’Neill noted his son’s poor performance in his home district and explained, “all politics is local,” coining a phrase for which Tip O’Neill would forever be synonymous.

Nearly 2,500 years earlier, another statesman made and observation that is useful in today’s political environment. The oracle Pericles stated, “If you don’t find politics, politics will find you.” In politics, there is nothing more local than land-use, and there is no land-use sector more opposed than landfills and the solid waste industry. In fact, the term “NIMBY” (Not In My Back Yard) was popularized in a 1980 news article concerning a proposed hazardous waste landfill.

Today, both statements help us understand the opposition to the solid waste industry. The permitting process for landfills and solid waste facilities is becoming much more contentious. Local politics are influencing the permitting and entitlement process, whether you seek to manage it proactively, or find yourself reacting to it.

The goal of this article is help identify ways to foster and communicate a mutually beneficial relationship with the communities in which you work or seek to expand into. If the opposition to your project or contract is unwilling to work with you, hopefully, some useful ways to overcome the opposition and build support for your controversial project will be provided.

Political Due Diligence

A large waste management client once told me that six out of seven Greenfield landfill proposals in the South will fail. While that one newly permitted Greenfield landfill will surely prove profitable, companies are spending significant resources on land acquisition/options, engineering, and legal fees. The carry costs for the other six failed landfills can be substantial.

Landfill developers can save money by conducting a “political due-diligence” on a potential site prior to undertaking substantial engineering and site/design work. In seeking a new or expanded facility, an applicant may conduct a market study or a site feasibility study before moving forward with an application. Yet many companies fail to consider the political landscape of the area in which they wish to serve.

Just as a company will study the market factors affecting the price of hauling and disposal, or the soil quality of the site, they should also learn the political landscape before moving forward with an application. When were the current members of the Commission elected (ie., who can afford to make a tough decision, and who has a tough re-election and cannot support you)? What do you know about the elected officials? What does the zoning look like? What about the solid waste plan for the municipality? Have there been other solid waste plans before this body? What other municipal issues may indirectly affect your application? What budgetary issues may your project solve? What other stakeholders may oppose or support you? Who else influences local politics? By researching the political landscape prior to undertaking the application for a new site, developers may save substantial costs and abandon the site, or may identify a clear way to make their case for the project.

Identify and Build Support

Identifying supporters for a landfill is actually is easier than it sounds. In a zoning or entitlement process, you will face a critical final vote of the local elected body. Your task is to win a majority (or super majority depending on your local government). So your goal should always be to increase your database of supporters that can apply pressure to those 5 or 7 members of the planning commission or county council. So how do you build an army to attend that critical hearing and voice their support?

First, begin with your existing network of business allies, friends, colleagues and folks who depend on your business. After that, look to pro-business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce. Civic clubs like Kiwanis, Rotary and other local clubs will usually open their meetings to allow you to give a presentation and take questions. In each of these groups, just like a candidate for office, you have to ask for their support.

Once you’ve exhausted the known individuals, businesses and organizations that may be sympathetic to your project, begin to reach out to the voters of your municipality. To do this, you must know who your voters are. Purchase a voter file for the entire County and send out a mail piece touting the benefits of the project. On the mail piece, include a tear-off, postage paid, postcard whereby supportive residents can fill out their information and mail it back, signaling their support.

Also, create a Web site specifically for the project. Use this site as a depository for the various studies and findings of facts related to the application, sharing your maps, diagrams and engineering studies. Create a “take action” page where citizens can send a letter to the local elected body, make phone calls to elected officials or show up to important zoning hearings. A Web site should also include a way to contact your company, as well as a way to capture the information of those that visit the site and offer their support, such as an online petition in support. If you are worried about the opposition getting a copy of your studies or maps, then you may not have a great site. A simple trip to the local planning office or state environmental agency will provide the opposition with a copy, so at least get points for sharing your studies and maps proactively.

There are several inexpensive ways to reach an entire county or city. First, you can conduct a countywide phone survey, asking for people’s opinion on the proposed project. If done correctly, you should be the only one to know the results. So if the results of a 1,000 completed surveys show 45 percent against the project, 35 percent don’t know or are neutral, and the remaining 20 percent are supportive—you will still have identified 200 people who are supportive of your project. If the results are even more encouraging, perhaps you would want to share them with the elected officials (see A Sample Process sidebar sidebar).

Once those supporters are identified, it is important someone on your staff develop a relationship with them. You will need them for the multitude of public hearings you will be required to endure. You will need them to write letters to the editor, make calls to elected officials, and send e-mails to their network of friends and fellow homeowners.

Manage Elected Officials

The importance of a traditional lobbyist and traditional PR associate is deeply reduced in today’s age of Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of social media. Elected officials will still meet with the lobbyist, and they will read the press release from the PR flack, but they are hearing directly from their constituents more today than ever before. Despite the close relationship with the lobbyist, we hear elected officials say “I’d like to vote for you, but I’m getting beat up over this issue in my district.”

The community elects elected officials, and most elected officials we’ve come across desire to be re-elected. So managing the elected officials will take more than the PR flack and the lobbyist. You have to proactively create the constituency to support the project. You need to engage the community to participate in the process. You have to teach democracy to your supporters, and turn them into grassroots lobbyists.

Elected officials want to see the support of the community, and they want that support to be organic, not generated by you, the applicant. Letter writing campaigns, petitions, video petitions, personalized emails and phone calls of support and attendance at public hearings will help elected officials support your project.

Neutralize Opposition

Just like Pericles warned, “If you don’t find politics, politics will find you,” a similar refrain should be heeded when beginning your application process: If you fail to define your project, the opponents will define it for you. You can never eliminate the opposition completely. Regardless of your reputation, the ample project buffering, or your generous host fee agreement, there will always be opposition to landfills and solid waste projects. You can, however, neutralize the opposition and lessen their impact on elected officials.

When dealing with opponents or agnostic residents, don’t be defensive. Be proud of your project and the modern engineering that will ensure the facility is safe for the surrounding community. Tout the environmental reasons you’ve chosen this particular site, and explain why it’s the most environmentally sound.

Go into the belly of the beast. Try to meet with the opposition directly in a small group format. But do not confuse this with the “open forum” meeting at the local high school auditorium. Those meetings are not productive for you or the public, and will leave you both more at odds than when you came in. Instead, opt for multiple local meetings at the homes of abutters from various sides of the project. Ask the various Homeowners Associations if you can have 15 minutes at their next meeting to bring in your engineers and answer questions.

Ideally, send your representatives door-to-door in the areas most significantly affected or upset. Opposition forms due to fear, and that fear is based on a lack of knowledge. Going door-to-door may not change hearts and minds, but it will answer questions and put some fears to rest. Plus, the mere fact you went door-to-door will begin to endear you to the public and may give elected officials the cover they need to vote your way (see Reaching Out sidebar).

Building Support

Successful community relations can mean the difference between receiving your approval and looking for a new site. Understanding local politics will play an important role in how your application is received by the public and elected officials. By identifying and building a database of supportive voters from within the district, you will begin to develop a grassroots army of proponents that can lobby on your behalf at the local level. By acknowledging and addressing the opposition, you will begin to neutralize and defuse the NIMBY crowd, reducing their effectiveness. In reducing the anger and fear of the opponents, and in building support through a voter contact program, you may create just the right constituency to help you secure the approval of your elected officials.

Darden Copeland is Managing Director for The Calvert Street Group, a leading national public affairs, corporate and political consulting firm focusing on state and local affairs, land-use and development, and grassroots lobbying. Darden has managed and overseen land-use “site fights” across 24 states and Canada. Darden and the Calvert Street Group have won dozens of waste-related initiatives across the country. In addition, he has conducted in-house trainings for various waste companies, lectured at numerous NSWMA events, and is an instructor at the Waste Training Institute. Darden can be reached at [email protected].


A Sample Process

For our clients, we like to conduct door-to-door outreach first to indentify key themes of support and opposition to the project. This is our version of a “focus group” – individual and small group meetings to hone our message. After enough interviews have been taken, we design a piece of mail to educate and answer questions. Once the mail is out district-wide, we conduct the phone survey. When done in this order, we begin to define the project and identify supporters before the opponents define the project for us.


Reaching Out

In a casual meeting with the leader of our opposition group, the opponent asked if we had met with each of the Planning Commission members—the first body our project would appear before. Since our plans were still conceptual, our client believed he did not need to reach out to the Planning Commission members yet. But the lack of a proposal didn’t stop the opposition group from scheduling individual lobbying sessions with the Planning Commission members. They found studies and “facts” from the Internet and compiled briefing books for the PC members. Needless to say, we had an uphill battle from that point onward.