The Other Big Issue in Scaling Up: Land Use Permission

The article below was Published February 2011 in Algae Industry

Picture this: the CEO of a large algal biomass corporation wants to pursue a new development. The economic difficulties haven’t slowed his company so he decides to build a new biorefinery near a small town in Arizona. The company’s management team constructs the business plan, collects the proper paperwork and gets ready for the approval process. All of a sudden the zoning commission holds off on granting their permit. Why? Residents of the towns near the proposed site created an opposition group to fight the project.

Despite the fact that the new plant would generate clean energy, increase the tax revenue and improve the local economy, the community doesn’t seem to understand these benefits. The residents say the new facility would be too close to their homes and may be potentially hazardous to their health. They say it would create too much noise, pollution, and traffic, and would obstruct their views. This is when the CEO realizes that opposition is indeed a roadblock that may halt or even destroy his project. So what does he do now?

The problem that this company is faced with is not so uncommon. It is called the ‘Not In My Backyard Syndrome’ (or NIMBYism). It consists of strong opposition by one person or a group of people to a new project or development in or near their community. NIMBYs, as they are commonly referred as, are very likely to organize quickly to communicate their opposition to a local project in an effort to curb development.

The practice of communal opposition to development blossomed in the 1980s. During that time, community concerns were reasonable and justified in most cases. First of all, the biomass industry was so new that people simply feared it as the unknown. In addition, with the technology available during that period, building any kind of biomass operation could mean noise, traffic, and pollution. The sentiment of opposition remains, as does the stigma of a biomass development near one’s home, even though with modern technology and strict government regulations, the inconvenience caused by any sort of development is usually nonexistent or reduced to a minimum.
The NIMBYs, however, always find a reason to oppose development. It seems that very often they are simply “in it to win it.” They oppose just for the sake of making a statement. The “Backyard” has grown so vastly that nowadays NIMBYism affects companies all over the world.

If your firm finds itself involved in a NIMBY fight, take the steps necessary to ensure the proper message is getting out to the public. Very often the opposition stems from misinformation and poor communication between project representatives and the community. In this case, it is better to play on the offensive. Instead of waiting for the opposition to grow, present them with the facts.

It is necessary to look for local support and build allies in order to form a supporter coalition. First and foremost, you need to identify and create a database of local residents who are in favor, against, or undecided about the project. A good way to begin is by carrying out a poll or a phone bank, inquiring local residents on their view of the renewable energy industry in general, and about your development plan in particular. The results of the surveys may then be published to showcase the positive attitude in the community toward your venture.

Once the database is created, it has to be maintained and updated frequently for the campaign management to be aware of the changes in the local opinion. One way to do this is through a targeted direct mail and/or advertising campaign. In addition, a strong social media campaign is a modern and necessary tool to spread your message, reach out to the community and provide supporters with a communication outlet.

Now that you have distinguished supporters from opposition, the next step is to reach out to third party groups that support your development. These groups could be anything from small businesses to a local decision maker. Those companies or groups who you have had a positive relationship with or will benefit from your project should be encouraged to participate in the campaign.
Residents should express their support through writing letters to their elected officials or newspapers. Those who are looking to support further can attend public hearings where they can speak about the benefits of your project. Most likely, an independent pro-group would have emerged by now and will actively participate in all aspects of the campaign.

You may choose to fight NIMBY on your own. However, hiring a specialized firm can provide you with the necessary tools and tactics to ensure a victory for your development. Trained professionals from a grass roots firm can make sure that the correct message from your company is being distributed to the community and the silent majority is heard. The way you approach the situation will make all the difference.