Project applicants in land use controversies often instinctively view neighbors as NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) adherents. But that’s not a given, because neighbors sometimes become strong supporters of real estate projects. There are two keys to motivating neighbors to stand up publicly for your project:
1. Demonstrate Strong Project Benefits
If the community will obviously benefit from a project in significant ways, then neighbors may be persuaded. New jobs for a city with high unemployment, traffic improvements to a congested street or including a much-needed supermarket in an underserved neighborhood may encourage supporters to flock to your side. If that’s likely to be the case, it makes sense to engage neighbors early and often.
How will you know if your project’s benefits are popular? You can guess, but the consequences can be high if you guess wrong. In that case, mass meetings, advertising and direct mail can actually generate more community opposition.
Instead of guessing, consider conducting opinion research: a formal survey or focus groups for a larger project, or informal interviews with neighbors or opinion leaders for a smaller one. In one Silicon Valley city, state-of-the-art survey techniques demonstrated that upscale retail opportunities far outweighed potential traffic difficulties with neighbors, particularly women shoppers. Viola – there’s your target audience!
2. Listen to Neighbors
Misinformation is a frequent reason why neighbors oppose developments.
“I heard your 10-story building will ruin our views and jam our streets! What’s that you say, it’s only 2 stories? Oh…”
While that example may be a bit simplistic, misplaced fears and rumors of overblown impacts do often drive neighborhood fury.
If you get there first with the facts after doing your homework, you may be able to prevent momentum building against your project.
Another advantage of listening to neighbors is that you might learn something. Neighbors may suggest project mitigations or concessions that will exponentially increase support for your project. In a Denver suburb, we discovered that increased setbacks were enough to overcome opposition to higher density and win backing from residents for a new subdivision across the street.
Listening to neighbors also brings its own reward. When your team spends time listening and problem-solving with Mr. and Mrs. Smith over their kitchen table, it becomes harder to demonize you as “the evil developer.” Personal relationships can go a long way toward overcoming obstacles when there is good will on both sides.
Sometimes neighbors will indeed hold NIMBY attitudes – they fear the potential impacts of your proposed land use next door no matter the benefits to the neighborhood or the larger community. Even so, it is their backyard, and elected officials will want to know that adjacent neighbors have been informed and treated with respect.
Frank Noto is president and co-founder of the San Francisco-based public affairs firm GCA Strategies. The firm’s founders have authored several books and articles on NIMBYism and the firm specializes in controversial land use projects across the nation. For more information, e-mail GCA President Frank Noto at Frank@FNstrategy.com, call us at 415-834-5645, or visit the GCA Strategies website at www.gcastrategies.com.