Overcoming Community Opposition

Debra Stein


The room is packed with shouting, placard-waving opponents. The public record is crammed with postcards, petitions, and protests against your project. Public officials seem reluctant to establish eye contact with you, and continue to make vague suggestions that you need to "do something" about community opposition. So what do you do?

Opposition or Support?
Any time you face community resistance to your project, the first question to ask yourself is, "Does it really matter?" In other words, do you need to minimize neighborhood opposition, or do you simply need to mobilize support?" Often, it's enough just to keep a cap on the opposition; at other times, you need overt evidence of community support either to sway key votes or to build the public record that justifies project approval. The distinction is critical. Your potential supporters are a totally different audience from your opponents. Your supporters won't be moved by the same messages that influence your detractors. Rather than waste your resources with an overly expansive community outreach program, you need to diagnose your primary community relations needs at the outset of the project development process.

Four Causes of Opposition
Let's assume that you need to reduce the level of community opposition to your project. Before running out to meet with any neighbor you can find and before disgorging a steady stream of newsletters, fact sheets, and brochures, you need to ask yourself, "Why are people opposed to this plan?" Given that many outreach tactics can actually generate greater community opposition than might already exist, you want your community relations program to be as sharply focused as possible. There are four different reasons why citizens oppose land use projects, and each requires a different community outreach response.

Misinformation
A tremendous amount of opposition to land use projects is based on misperceptions or exaggerated fears of project impacts. "Whaddaya mean that you're only building 50 luxury homes? I heard you were building 500 low-income apartment units!" "I thought the building was going to block my view." "You mean it's not true that you evicted those little old ladies in order to get control of the property?" "Hmmmm....this isn't as bad as I thought."

Opposition based on misinformation is the easiest type of resistance to overcome. Developers generally rely on unilateral communications (newsletters, fact sheets) or bilateral communications (one-on-one briefings) to educate people about their projects. Even though public agencies often insist on large community meetings or other multiparty forums, such gatherings are rarely effective informational events. Usually, a project raises more issues than can be adequately discussed at a large meeting. Further, many people are embarrassed to admit in front of others that they don't understand your proposal, while people with language difficulties may be especially reluctant to speak up in front of a large crowd. Community meetings often do little more than introduce potential opponents to each other, allow them to hear and adopt each others' agendas, and permit activists to stake out public positions in front of their constituents.

It is important to note that if opposition isn't caused by a lack of information, then disgorging endless data will simply stir up people who were otherwise disinterested. Distribution of information can alert audience members to issues they would never have considered without the prompting of printed material. Moreover, public information is inherently condescending. Offering to "tell neighbors about the project" starts from the presumption that you and you alone are entitled to make decisions that affect the community. It also suggests that you typically inform neighbors only after you've made all the necessary unilateral decisions.

Unmet Emotional Needs
Opposition to your project may have nothing to do with the project itself. People get involved in land use debates in order to feel important, to justify their leadership roles to their constituents, and to save face after being treated disrespectfully. When citizens feel that they aren't going to "win" many substantive points about your proposal, they may try to make the facts irrelevant by shifting the debate away from a rational consideration of your plan to an emotional confrontation. Emotional attacks are often an effective way for citizens to even the playing field and feel like a pivotal part of the decision-making process.

Meeting your opponents' emotional needs is usually the least expensive way to reduce opposition to your project. You may need to allow neighbors to vent their anger toward you, you may need to apologize, you may even need to overcome your own anger and resentment and show neighbors the consideration they feel they deserve...but you generally don't have to make costly concessions to overcome opposition based on unmet emotional needs.

Conflicts of Values
Some people perceive land use debates as basic moral conflicts between good and evil. Since the days of the Puritans, progress and growth have been considered morally good, with any environmental impacts in the name of achievement seen as purely incidental. Over the past few decades, however, America has seen a major shift in its moral ideology related to land use and economic development. A significant segment of society now believes that land has intrinsic value beyond its usefulness to humans and that preservation of the environment is itself an independent moral principle. For environmental moralists, ecological preservation is a higher moral goal than economic growth or property rights. Therefore, it is absolutely critical that you recognize when you are dealing with ethical extremists. After all, you can't negotiate values. Environmental extremists will never concede in good faith that the destruction of five acres of wetlands is acceptable but the destruction of six acres is not.

If you share your opponents' moral principles, then say so. If the parties place a different priority on a particular value, then explore your opponents' environmental priorities in relationship to their other values. Sure, they may hold strong beliefs about environmental protection, but how do those beliefs compare to other moral priorities such as affirmative action, property rights, or concepts of fairness and equity? Even if the parties hold truly conflicting values, the clash does not have to result in deadlock. When land use conflicts appear to be caused by ethical disagreements, focus on mutual interests and problems rather than on conflicting values can lead the way to resolution.

Conflicts of Interests
Land use projects tend to pit positive interests against negative interests. Citizens have a positive interest in gaining new benefits they don't currently enjoy: new tax revenues, new housing, new local jobs, new services, and so on. Most supporters will endorse your proposal when it serves their positive interests. By comparison, neighbors have a negative interest in losing benefits they presently claim to possess. Most citizens live in the community because they like it. They are not looking for more traffic, fewer deer, crowded schools, or other changes to the status quo. Not surprisingly, the loss of an existing benefit is considered to be significantly more important than the equivalent gain of a new benefit. That is why it is so much easier for opponents to turn out troops to stop your project than it is for you to encourage residents to show up to support your plan.

Persuasion: Developers often use persuasion to convince citizens that the project will not injure their interests. Rational persuasion involves the logical presentation of facts and arguments. Opponents rely heavily on emotional persuasion using personal attacks, peer pressure, guilt, and appeals to fear to turn residents against you and your project. Many people, however, respond to peripheral persuasion and use cultural rules-of-thumb and decision-making shortcuts to decide whether they believe and agree with you. "Everybody hates this so it must be a bad project." "She rattled off a lot of statistics, so she must be telling the truth." "All lawyers lie."

Negotiations: Public agencies often urge project sponsors to engage in negotiations with neighbors to resolve conflict. Before going any further into the subject of negotiation, it is critical to note that making concessions is usually the most costly and least effective way to resolve conflict. Concessions can cost you millions. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize the four major types of bargaining.

* If you are debating about a single issue that can be easily divided (such as height or the number of units), then you can reach a middle-ground compromise on that one issue.

* If many issues are in dispute, then you will probably want to exchange concessions by giving up something you don't care too much about so that you can gain a concession that means a lot to you.

* If the total pool of potential resources just seems too small to satisfy everyone, then you can expand the pie by going to the city or other parties outside the debate and asking them to cough up goodies to make the neighbors happy.

* Opponents often believe that they should have decision-making powers equal to the developer and that joint problem solving is appropriate. With joint problem solving, however, no development occurs at all unless both the owner and the neighbors are equally satisfied.

Coercion: Angry neighbors often rely on coercion to win land use battles. Normally, coercive behavior such as lies, threats, and bad faith negotiation are subject to strong social disapproval. If, however, your opponents have succeeded in characterizing you as a morally bad person, then their coercive conduct becomes morally justified to counteract your "unethical," more powerful position.

All community opposition is not alike, and the wrong type of outreach response can create more problems than it solves. If opposition isn't caused by lack of information, then newsletters and fact sheets will backfire. Making concessions won't resolve opposition based on unmet emotional needs. You can't negotiate a conflict of values. Endless meetings won't solve conflicts of interest. But, by carefully diagnosing the cause of opposition and undertaking outreach activities specifically tailored to respond to that cause, you can reduce citizen opposition to your project.

Debra Stein is the author of Winning Community Support for Land Use Projects and Making Community Meetings Work, both published by the Urban Land Institute. She is the president of GCA Strategies, a San Francisco-based community relations firm specializing in controversial land use projects.