A Silver Linings Playbook for Controversial Development Projects
By: Patrick Slevin
Public meetings can help inform the community about a development project, and they can also provide an opportunity to build goodwill.
It’s important for developers to really listen to the community when planning a big project. However, that doesn’t mean acquiescing to every request.
Turning public conflict into corporate goodwill requires thoughtful strategies and genuine concern for the local community.
Who would want to oppose a new hospital, emergency room or medical complex?
Of all the types of real estate developments, medical facilities would seem to be the least likely to experience public opposition and political crisis. After all, hospitals and free-standing emergency rooms create high-paying jobs, attract physicians and nurses, generate tax revenue and improve the quality of life in the community. Yet some new hospitals and ERs cannot escape the costly process of community opposition.
For the most part, when medical projects experience opposition, it comes from competitors looking to protect their market share. However, there are a significant number of hospital projects strongly opposed by local citizens. It seems there are a growing number of media reports about local “hospital wars” — not just those launched by competitors, but also those brought on by local citizens. The latter often claim new hospitals increase traffic, depreciate property values, create water runoff, and even elevate noise pollution with helicopters transporting patients for emergency treatment.
A recent Google search of the terms “Hospital” and “Opposition” produced more than 69 million links, many of them media accounts of communities attempting to stop hospital developments. The stories reveal patterns of crisis, not just in the health care development industry, but across every area of land use development. As the recent example of Amazon abandoning its headquarters in New York City in the face of huge opposition shows, being aware of this fact and knowing how it manifests is key to successfully generating corporate goodwill for projects facing more public scrutiny than usual.
Why Do People Oppose Development?
Benjamin Franklin coined the term about death and taxes being the only certainties in life. He neglected to add a third certainty, and that’s change. As a constant force, change is often wrapped in uncertainty, which leads to emotionally charged anxieties. These anxieties can fuel the fear of change.
Developers introducing new land-use projects can unknowingly trigger a fear in people to maintain the status quo. “The devil you know” mindset can appear more desirable than embracing change. Moreover, when change is perceived as a loss equal to or greater than any proposed gain, citizens fall into a state of “loss aversion” that instigates and sustains community resistance.
In a 2018 Psychology Today article, Shahram Heshmat of the University of Illinois at Springfield noted that “loss aversion is an important aspect of everyday economic life. The idea suggests that people tend to stick with what they have unless there is a good reason to switch. The loss aversion is a reflection of a general bias in human psychology (status quo bias) that makes people resistant to change. So when we think about change, we focus more on what we might lose rather than on what we might get.”
When it comes to turning public conflict into corporate goodwill, it’s important to know what motivates a community. In the case of controversial developments, understanding why people oppose projects and how they effectively defeat them is part of breaking the pattern of crisis.
It’s important to note that not all opposition is unjustified or fueled purely by anti-development sentiments. A 2004 study from the NAIOP Research Foundation entitled “This Land is My Land … But It Could Be Our Land: Developing Influencer Relationships to Accelerate Development Success,” which was based on interviews with real estate developers and influencers from outside the commercial real estate industry, found that “diminishing open space is alarming people into action, as is the perceived poor track record of community planning and zoning in many areas.” Additionally, the study noted that many groups “don’t trust government agencies or planning boards to make what they feel are the right decisions for their communities.”
In the context of land development and loss aversion, people can visualize and physically experience the pain of losing what they have more than they can see the benefits gained from a new hospital or medical practice. So when a few activists begin to speak out against a project via the digital grapevine, it can stoke the fears of residents. When enough citizens fear change, the press and elected officials begin taking notice, and projects find themselves in the crosshairs of public conflict.
Therefore, when something as logical as a new hospital offers the promise of good jobs, better quality of life and other improvements, the project can still be exposed to the risk of demonization by emotional fears of loss. Confrontation then becomes almost inevitable.
Dealing With Conflict
When it came to battle, Napoleon famously said that he preferred engaging the same adversary over and over, because he would become familiar with their tactics and use that knowledge against them. In the case of real estate development, those who are opposed to a project can have the upper hand, much like Napoleon, in exploiting developers’ rigid, often predictable business practices.
On the internet, it’s easy to find “how-to” advice for defeating developers. For example, a search for “how to defeat developers” turns up a June 2017 news story from the Charlotte Observer entitled “Neighborhood Organizers Offer Tips for Fighting Development: 5 Tips from Pros in the Trenches.” (Sample quote: “City Council doesn’t like (people) to show up to an ugly zoning meeting with a lot of ‘no’ signs.”) An internet search for “how to oppose development” brings up 67 million hits. These links offer tactics for concerned audiences facing change and fear.
Historically, developers have often been defined by community activists (and a frequently willing news media) as Goliath poised to be slain by David at City Hall. Even when developers have successfully fought for their projects and won the license to operate, their reputations are often left bloodied and bruised.
“I find there is a tendency for anti-developer leaders in the community to speak louder, more often, and with cooler heads than developers,” said a professor who took part in NAIOP’s “This Land is My Land … But It Could Be Our Land” study. “The anti-development caucus in the community may represent a minority, but they can dominate the debate.”
In the digital age, opponents have even more avenues to attack future investments, so while one development battle can be won, the war for future approvals can still be lost.
Development opposition frequently relies on confrontation. It’s no coincidence that the David vs. Goliath story template is replayed in thousands of media reports every year. Oppositional groups cannot exist without the confrontation and conflict that stokes political crisis. Therefore, an applicant operating under an “us vs. them” attitude unknowingly plays into the hands of those who wish to stoke conflict.
To turn public conflict into corporate goodwill, land-use professionals must resist the tendency to put themselves in a combative public posture with the opposition. This approach is counterintuitive for many in the industry, but exhibiting non-confrontational actions will effectively take the wind out of the sails of the opposition. While it can be useful for developers to host informational sessions with the community before any formal votes on a project, it’s important that they gain awareness about the notice-and-hearing process.
How the Notice-and-Hearing Process Works
The key to turning public conflict into corporate goodwill begins with developers realizing that the opposition doesn’t exist without public anxieties to sustain them. In order to propagate public conflict and fears, some of those who are opposed to a project take advantage of the notice-and-hearing system and its flaws.
The notice-and-hearings process is not always handled in a logical and orderly manner. While most approvals run smoothly, if a real estate project becomes controversial, the process can become politically and emotionally chaotic.
One of the main reasons for the notice-and-hearing system is to facilitate public participation and education. In many cases, it does the exact opposite. The notice-and-hearing process can spark rumors and create perceptions of favoritism to deep-pocketed developers. That, in turn, can empower opponents who are highly adept at exploiting the proceedings.
While most citizens who attend public hearings are airing legitimate concerns in good faith, some opponents hijack the notice-and-hearing process to antagonize public officials and put them under political pressure and duress. It doesn’t help if it’s an election year.
There’s No Crisis If There’s No Conflict
Land-use professionals have often been given poor advice when it comes to dealing with their opposition. This includes traditional political campaign tactics that are predicated on the polarization and wedging of audiences. Operatives predictably proffer grassroots, direct mail, paid media, PR campaigns and coalition endeavors. These engagements might be necessary or useful, but frequently applicants are left to engage the community in a patchwork effort that unknowingly contributes to conflict. In other words, they are involuntarily working against themselves.
While it’s often helpful for developers to host informational meetings before launching a project, the dynamic can change when the opposition creates a confrontational situation. Elected officials frequently get spooked and pressure applicants to host a town hall meeting. Confrontations during town hall meetings can embolden the pattern of crisis. That needs to change, but how?
What Not to Do
The first rule in crisis management is not to make a bad situation worse. So a developer should do the unexpected: Resist the urge to accommodate elected officials worried about re-election and don’t embolden the media, which too often thrives on conflict. Take a deep breath and step back from potential confrontational situations. Doing this can give a developer time to regroup and determine next steps without exhibiting a defensive public posture.
After the initial news cycle or two, the intensity of the attacks will often decrease. Not participating in the confrontation helps the crisis begin to die down.
When it comes to highly contentious projects, don’t engage the opposition in a public forum — at least while the crisis is still fresh in the minds of stakeholders. In many of these tense situations, town hall-type meetings can turn into circuses where opponents disrupt the proceedings and generate more negative publicity.
Don’t appear to be strong-arming or insulting the elected officials’ constituents. Make sure quotes and comments are constructive, sensitive and optimistic about the project. Staying above the fray as much as possible cultivates corporate and community goodwill.
Don’t fall for the allure of making too many concessions as a means of climbing out of the crisis. In many cases, the more concessions offered, the more concessions the opposition will demand.
Don’t have a bunker mentality during the crisis. Most developers either stick their necks out to overaccommodate the opposition or they go to the other extreme by keeping a very low profile. When developers keep too low of a profile, it alienates community leaders and influencers who remain supportive of the project. This is very important, because these are the people who have the ears of the elected officials. Developers should keep them informed and empowered, even when it gets ugly.
A Few Things to Do
Do engage media, but don’t do it alone. It’s one thing when the developer presents the facts about the project, but it’s another when community leaders advocate for it. In a crisis, it’s not what is said, but who says it, so enhance the credibility of the project with third-party influencers from the community who support the developer’s goals.
To cultivate influencers, do have one-on-one meetings with them in the community before and during the crisis. These influencers can be current or past leaders of business, civic and residential organizations.
Do speak before membership groups. Reach out to realtor boards, homebuilder groups and other membership-driven organizations. They can provide valuable feedback and help craft strategies.
Do increase the visibility of the project by establishing a dedicated website and using social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube. Social media presence encourages transparency and participation while dispelling negative perceptions about the project.
Do transform the rational arguments for approving the project into an emotionally appealing, humanized narrative. It’s easier for elected officials to reject sustainable real estate projects that seem to only benefit the developers, but it’s harder for them to reject the project knowing citizens will be adversely affected.
In today’s digital age, anti-development groups can quickly set in motion a pattern of crisis that delays, disrupts and potentially defeats any development, leading to significant losses of investment capital, shareholder value and revenue. However, it’s possible for land-use professionals to cultivate corporate goodwill for their projects confidently. As this happens, the crisis is not only diffused, but arbitrary attacks are marginalized.
Developers no longer have to fight their way out of a crisis. Now, land use professionals can immediately begin breaking down the patterns of crisis using a thoughtful and non-combative posture that will foster enduring goodwill for their companies, their clients and their communities.
Get the Report
To download a copy of the NAIOP Research Foundation’s report “This Land is My Land… But It Could Be Our Land: Developing Influencer Relationships to Accelerate Development Success,” follow this link: www.naiop.org/19influencer
Patrick Slevin, a former Florida mayor, is a corporate consultant, speaker and trainer who heads SL7 Consulting, an integrated communications and stakeholder engagement firm. This article was derived from his presentation “Crisis Leadership: How to Turn Controversial Land Development into Your Finest Hour.”