Ken Ryan – Jurisdiction Jujitsu

Professional Builder

May 1, 2017

NIMBY Attitude: A Given

In some locales, zoning has little meaning. Municipalities and counties have multistep processes that provide opponents with plenty of opportunity to demand what should and shouldn’t be done with property they don’t own. Home builders of all sizes complain that in many locales residents have a sense of entitlement to stop or alter a project just because they don’t like it, citing impact on traffic, property values, safety, character of the neighborhood, or the environment. Steven Mungo, CEO of Mungo Homes, in North Charleston, S.C., had to sit through a hearing listening to opponents of one of the builder’s projects in Charleston reminisce about trekking to and picnicking under a grand oak tree on a proposed Mungo community site. “I got a kick out of the fact that they had to admit to trespassing on my property,” he says.

It’s a NIMBY (not in my backyard) world out there, but the perception that it’s overrun with tree huggers and naysayers opposed to any kind of change is an oversimplification. “Quite frankly, everyone is [guilty of being] a NIMBY,” says Sara Ellis, a former real estate lobbyist and current VP of Roni Hicks & Associates, a San Diego agency that helps developers and builders nationwide steer property through entitlement by constructively engaging with elected officials and communities. “When you own a piece of property,” she says, “it’s a large part of how you live in the world. It’s your home. Of course you’re protective. It can be scary that something could change.”

Behind any successful entitlement effort is deep and strategic research of the community and its political landscape long before a permit application is filed. The goal isn’t so much to get opponents to support your project as it is to strive for consensus by establishing trust, respecting different opinions, and forming relationships. “You have to do your homework,” says Ken Ryan, a principal with Irvine, Calif.-based KTGY Architecture + Planning, which also does consulting for building industry clients navigating various jurisdictions and local opposition. “That means understanding the total environment, from the community perspective, the decision-maker perspective, and the [municipal or county] staff perspective. You need to take the time up front, otherwise you’re going to spend it on the back end.”

Outreach 101: A Crash Course

Whether you’re a Housing Giant building on thousands of acres or a small builder with a single lot, count on some opposition to your project. Below are questions that should be part of your project’s site research, followed by recommendations for outreach.

Due-Diligence Questions

• What’s unique about the area? Is there historical, architectural, cultural, or physical significance?

• Was anyone else’s development turned down before and why? (The answer can reveal who are the key communicators for that community, says Sara Ellis, VP of Roni Hicks & Associates.)

• Who are the quiet leaders of the community?

• Who are the planning and zoning board commissioners? Are they there out of a sense of public service or do they have aspirations for higher office? (That commissioner you’re working with could be a future mayor.)

Tips for Engaging Public Officials/the Community

• Share everything and answer all inquiries—people will assume the worst if they don’t know what’s going on.

• Don’t be “archy,” says Seattle architect Ross Chapin. Drop the jargon and use plain English when presenting to the public so you don’t appear arrogant or as if you’re talking over their heads.

• Don’t overwhelm public officials with information. They’re busy dealing with a multitude of other issues
besides your project. Ken Ryan of KTGY Architecture + Planning recommends keeping the message simple with visuals and bullet points.

• Use the municipal/county staff as a resource to research the community and the predisposition of public officials. Keep this information confidential. Your sources need to know they can share information with you without any
possible backlash.

• Sometimes when development opponents raise crime concerns or say that they don’t want “those kinds of people” in their neighborhood, they may be revealing a core fear that their property value will decline. Ellis says that fear can be turned into a logical discussion about connecting how a property improvement can raise market value.

• There is the organized environmental community and then there are neighbors who cloak their objections to a development with concern for the environment. Treat the environment as another stakeholder in the room. Be sensitive and pay homage to natural resources.