The article below was Published May 2012 in Ethanol Producer Magazine.
You have plans to build a biorefinery. Jobs, tax revenue, and much more are the benefits that will resonate with the community. At the first public hearing, however, opposition arises due to fears of having such an industry in the community. The entitling agency takes notice, and now you must build support, long after you have announced your plans and opposition has solidified.
Why? Residents near the proposed site have created an opposition group to fight the project. Despite the fact that the new plant would generate renewable energy for many communities 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 potentially be hazardous to their health. They say it would create too much noise, pollution, and traffic, and would obstruct their views. You realize the opposition is a roadblock that may halt or even destroy the project. Now what do you do?
This problem is not so uncommon. This practice of communal opposition to development— the “not in my backyard” syndrome, or NIMBYism— blossomed in the 1980s. During that time, community concerns were often reasonable and justified. While those days are gone, the sentiment of opposition remains, and the “backyard” has grown so vastly that NIMBYism affects companies all over the world. With modern technology and strict government regulations, however, the inconvenience caused by any sort of development is usually reduced to a minimum.
Get the Message Out
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 it with the facts.
It is necessary to look for local support and build allies to form a supporter coalition. First and foremost, identify and create a database of local residents who are in favor of, against, or undecided about the project. A good way to begin is by carrying out a poll or a phone bank, asking local residents about their view of the renewable energy industry in general and your development plan in particular. The survey results may be published to showcase the positive attitude in the community toward the venture.
Once the database is created, it should be maintained and updated frequently for the campaign management to be aware of changes in local opinion. One way to do this is through a targeted direct mail and/or advertising campaign. A strong social media campaign is modern and necessary to spread your message, reach out to the community, and provide supporters with a communication outlet.
Organization of a database is crucial to the success of a campaign. Whether the identification process is achieved through direct mail, radio, phone calls or email, having an unorganized list of supporters and undecided residents doesn’t do your campaign any good. By inputting your supporters into a database, you can then separate them by town, county and legislative district for effective grassroots lobbying.
Now that you have distinguished supporters from opposition, the next step is to reach out to third-party groups that support the development. These groups could be anything from small businesses to a local decision maker. Companies or groups with whom you have had a positive relationship or who will benefit from your project should be encouraged to participate in the campaign. Do not focus only on third-party groups for support: Third-party groups are critical for your efforts, but often a few dozen “regular citizens” showing up to hearings and meetings can benefit your project tremendously.
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 the project. Most likely, an independent pro-group will have emerged by now and will actively participate in all aspects of the campaign.
Grassroots campaigns create a support group of members from the local community that can assist in your efforts. The support group can actively promote your project through social networking. Proactive support groups are also a great source of volunteers and as they volunteer, they’ll feel more committed and supportive of your project.
Campaigns should be designed based on several factors including the size of the population you are targeting, the level of opposition, and the length of the entitlement process. Many of these campaigns should research their territory, identify supporters, code them into a database, not rely solely on email, not focus only on third-party support and always be transparent.
Regardless of the industry or location, NIMBYism always presents itself in an attempt to curb a proposal. It can attack any project no matter how big or small. Employing proper campaign tactics and developing the right grassroots campaign can counter NIMBY opposition to your energy projects.
Companies frequently wait until opposition arises to hire a public affairs firm. By then residents have solidified their positions on a project, making it all the more difficult for them to change their minds in your favor. While some may feel the “added cost” of a public affairs firm is not worth it to the project budget, think about how much it costs a project to be delayed weeks, months or years, or to be outright denied approval. You may choose to fight NIMBYism on your own. Experience shows, however, that hiring a specialized firm will provide you with the necessary tools and tactics to ensure a victory for your development. Trained professionals from a grassroots firm will make sure that the correct message from your company is being distributed to the community and that the silent majority is heard.
The way you approach the situation will make all the difference. You can choose to ignore the NIMBY fight, avoid communicating with the local community, and take the situation to an unnecessary level of tension. Or, you and/or a specialized team can develop a strategy, engage in conversation with the community, and encourage project proponents to voice their support.