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Political Savvy

The Saint Consulting Group shares some of its secrets in winning land use fights.

Getting new projects built today requires more than a good vision and a nifty design. People overwhelmingly oppose any new development in their neighborhoods. And since all zoning and approvals are handled locally, officials are much more likely to side with citizens than with a builder from out of state.

In fact, even in instances where citizens recognize a broader community need — say, for a new grocery store, a new hospital or affordable housing — they are still likely to oppose the projects if construction of the facility will affect them directly. Moreover, by nature, opponents to development are far more likely to speak out than supporters.

All of this seems to create a stacked deck against developers. So what is there to do?

The Saint Consulting Group has built a firm based on answering that question. It says it has worked on 1,400 projects in its history. Now the firm's principals have shared some of their tips in a new book, Nimby Wars.

Saint specializes in surreptitiously entering communities and helps to organize grassroots opposition for (or against) pending projects. The company goes in and finds groups of people that would be prone to support (or oppose) a project and then helps give the campaign form and strategy.

Saint openly admits that it has worked for developers trying to get projects built as well as for those that have existing projects in place and want to bar any new competition from entering the market. Saint's tactics are fluid. It does not have a one-size-fits-all approach to building these campaigns. And the book gives a taste for how navigating this process is as much an art as it is a science.

A few faults

However, the book has its faults. It is extremely self-promotional. For example, the book's publisher is listed as the fictional Saint University Press. It is actually a self-published tome. And although the bibliography includes many outside sources, there are few citations within the book.

At many points the authors simply make assertions or construct hypothetical scenarios to back up their case. And a section that argues for hiring a land use political consultant rather than exploring other alternatives is hard to take at face value since the conclusion reached argues exclusively for hiring a firm like Saint.

Lastly, while there is a chapter that includes about two dozen real-life case studies, most are extremely brief and include few details. Some of that is understandable. By nature, Saint's line of work is private. It cannot divulge who its clients are and there's even a section in the book that outlines some of the ways that Saint goes about entering communities and even designing its invoices to uphold the highest levels of confidentiality about what it is doing.

Still, it feels like the case studies — one of the more valuable parts of the book — could have been bulked up to give readers more of a sense of the ebb and flow of the individual campaigns and how Saint helped deal with any hitches as they arose.

Aside from these faults, there is a lot of value in the book. One of its strongest features include a history of land use regulations in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. Each nation has its own quirks and the book gives a good primer on what those are.

Another section outlines the legal justifications behind the campaigns. Although it may seem shady, the book points out the laws that make it perfectly legal for one developer to secretly fund a campaign to help derail the project of another.

Lastly, the book makes a compelling case as to why it will get even more difficult to win support for building projects in the future, making the kinds of campaigns Saint outlines more common. In the end, the book is worthy reading for any developer.

TAGS: Development
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