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We win political and community support for controversial land use and public affairs projects.

Panic can spread at lightning speed. Rumors go out, sometimes aided and abetted by facts, sometimes not. People become emotionally attached to their views under pressure, and do illogical things.

While this perfectly describes some NIMBY battles, the spread of irrational rumors is not restricted to land use entitlement conflicts. According to a New York Times report on September 18, 2014:

The bodies of eight officials and journalists who went to a remote village in Guinea to dispel rumors about the deadly Ebola outbreak gripping the region were discovered after a rock-hurling mob attacked the delegation, claiming that it had come to spread the illness …

The delegation had left for the village on Tuesday for what was supposed to be a community event to raise awareness about the Ebola virus … “They went on a mission to try to sensitize the local population about Ebola, but unfortunately they were met with hostility by people throwing rocks … Among the only survivors was the 5-year-old son of the sub-prefect, who was left hiding in the wild.

While opponents might only throw rotten tomatoes, land use approvals in the U.S. can be subject to similar emotions based on misinformation: “I hear you money-grubbing developers are kicking two old ladies out on the street so you can build a luxury condo building. We are going to stop you!” Like public health experts, many developers typically believe that public education and “raising awareness” is the answer to preventing irrational behavior. The idea is that with more information at hand, people are more likely to make better choices. But history shows that the reverse is often true – more information can lead to panic and poor decision-making when it is conveyed in improper ways.

Education Can Backfire

Whether the topic is health or construction, sometimes programs designed to educate the public backfire. More information can heighten concern, and actually encourage citizens to behave in ways unsupported by evidence. A recent study of American parents in the journal Pediatrics on views linking autism to measles vaccination provides a case in point: Pro-vaccination messages did not sway parents who were distrustful of vaccination. In fact, quite the opposite occurred: an informative video about sick children with measles “increased parents’ reported beliefs that vaccines cause serious side effects.”

A key conclusion of the study is that “logic does not play a major role in how people respond to public-health information ….” On controversial topics, “it’s not surprising that people respond to information … in a way that reflects their pre-existing views,” according to the study’s lead author.

If logic does not persuade, then land use project sponsors should not bang their heads against the wall with unnecessary or counter-productive public education campaigns. Advertising, mail and meetings that counter potential opposition assertions with facts might inadvertently introduce new people to new anti-project arguments they had not previously envisioned. Mass meetings have an added disadvantage in that they may bring together opponents and help them organize against the project.

The problem with public information campaigns is that
they are inherently condescending.

The key problem with public information campaigns is that they are inherently condescending, because communication tends to move in only one direction: from the project sponsor to the neighbors. When citizens have their own opinions they want to express, a public participation approach is needed.

The trick to successful persuasion in land use is to first determine the potential causes of opposition, and then respond appropriately. Providing more information is a correct response to some, but not to others. Opposition typically stems from four causes:

1- Conflict of values
2- Conflict of interest
3- Lack of public participation
4- Lack of information

CONFLICT OF VALUES: More information won’t resolve a true conflict of values. Would an international conflict with ISIS (also known as the Islamic State) be resolved by providing them with more information? When there is a wide gap in value systems, no amount of leaflets can paper over the conflict.

Closer to home, no quantity of statistics will win support for affordable housing from any neighbors who view lower-income tenants as likely criminals and drug dealers. Similarly, don’t expect a website or a blizzard of mailers to persuade those who see building on vacant property as raping virgin land.

When encountering those with radically different values during an entitlements campaign, prepare to walk away quickly and quietly. If engagement with them is required (by local decision-makers or by planning regulations), take the opportunity to demonstrate your common humanity and any shared values (e.g., job creation, funding for better schools). But don’t expect to win them over. Instead, try to avoid demonization or making them angrier than they already are.

Target Likely Supporters, Not NIMBYs

Rather than attempting to persuade the unpersuadable, developers should instead focus most of their resources on likely supporters. It’s logical to spend more time and effort reaching out to receptive audiences in the neighborhood – local merchants, prospective tenants and other project beneficiaries, contractors, nonprofits, the real estate community and adjacent neighbors tired of living next to an eyesore. Prioritize outreach efforts whenever NIMBY opposition is likely, but especially when the cause is a conflict of values. Concentrating on identification, recruitment and mobilization of potential supporters rather than re-education of confirmed opponents will result in a higher return on investment.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST: While a conflict of interest similarly cannot be solved primarily through education, it often can be negotiated. Concessions, counter-balancing benefits and mitigation measures can result in a compromise that satisfies potential opponents.

If neighbors fear being impacted by construction noise, agree to install sound walls, pay for double-pane windows or forgo jackhammers. If views from front windows are the issue, compromise by reducing heights on selected buildings.

Sometimes neighbors are more likely to be supportive while other stakeholders are NIMBYs. If the former are eager to see an unsightly structure or hazard removed, they may be potential pro-project supporters. At the very least, neighbors may be more likely to view development impacts as practical conflicts of interest rather than an ideological conflict of values, and thus may be more willing to negotiate than other opponents.

LACK OF PUBLIC PARTICIPATION: People who see themselves as community leaders expect to be consulted, and hearing about a project through a brochure in the mail or a blast email fails to respect their importance. Traditional public information techniques may not work, or may even be perceived as insulting.

Acknowledging the legitimate involvement of stakeholders can help diffuse the anger of those seeking validation of their leadership roles. Reaching out on a one-on-one basis or through small group meetings to ask for their counsel is more respectful than an education campaign aimed at a mass audience.

LACK OF INFORMATION: If opinions truly have not crystallized, correcting certain types of misinformation with easy-to-understand facts sometimes will help.

Your 20-story high-rise is going to ruin our views. What’s that you say, it’s only 2-stories? Uh, that may be different.

Often the problem with correcting misinformation is not the message but the messenger. If village leaders had been trained to convey an Ebola-prevention message, there might never have been casualties. When people are angry or scared, they may not listen, especially to outsiders. In a land use battle, recruit trusted members of the community (e.g., clergy, school principals, retired fire/police chiefs, merchant leaders) to calm fears and disseminate messages. People are more likely to trust those with a good reputation or pre-existing relationship with the community.

All NIMBY opposition is not alike, and responses should be governed by the underlying causes of that opposition. Lack of public participation and disputes based on conflicting values and interests cannot be resolved by education alone. Public education campaigns are typically only successful when the problem is primarily lack of information, and then only when the facts are easy to understand and conveyed by appropriate messengers. Identification and mobilization of supporters is just as important as minimizing opposition. Such supporter mobilization can influence the news media, the general public and decision-makers.

(Frank Noto is president of GCA Strategies, a firm which specializes in land use outreach in communities across the nation. Check out his website at www.GCAstrategies.com or email him at frank@fnstrategy.com).