Cell Towers Must Battle NIMBYism with Better Tactics

Published July, 2014 in Above Ground Level Magazine.

Don’t assume support for your new cell tower. Run an aggressive campaign and identify vocal supporters to outnumber opponents in petitions, letters or crowds at public hearings.

Cell phone towers provide businesses and residents with an essential service: wireless communication access. New towers allow for expanded service areas, because of concerns about visual aesthetics, effects on property values and possible negative health effects, among others, not every community welcomes a new tower. As a result, proposals for new towers are not often met with organized opposition within the community, causing delays in tower construction or forcing companies to find alternate locations. Examples across the United States and Canada demonstrate how opponents can effectively organize campaigns to prevent the construction of new towers and, thus, reduce the opportunity to increase cell phone service in areas in need. However, there are tactics that companies can employ to increase the likelihood for public support in order to successfully obtain the permits needed to construct these towers. Cell tower companies should be mindful that taking a proactive approach to gaining public support for a new tower is the best way to prevent costly project delays due to NIMBY or “not in my backyard” opposition.

In December 2013, In Westport, Massachusetts, New Cingular Wireless CPS introduced a proposal for a new cell tower to provide residents and businesses with increased cellular coverage. The tower, slated at 150 feet, would allow the placement of three cellular providers’ antennas to reduce the need for additional towers in the future. However, by January, residents in nearby neighborhoods began organizing an opposition campaign focused on the visual effect of the tower, increased construction traffic and perceived negative property values effects. Because of the tower’s height, the project would need approval from the Westport zoning board, but pressure from opponents has already pushed developers to begin to consider other locations. Despite the fact that opponents acknowledged their currently poor cell phone service in the area, they remain more concerned with the ultimate defeat of the proposed tower in their community.

The efforts of even just one local opponent can have costly effects on cell tower construction. Opponents of cell towers often draw upon their own person resources to prevent new towers from being built in their communities. In November 2013, in Abbotsford, British Colombia, one resident presented the results of her own personally funded survey to the city council, claiming 79 percent of residents were in opposition to its construction. Conversely, city staff reported that in a comment card response format, 59 percent of residents were actually in favor of the new cell tower. Despite reassurance from the developer, who has addressed community concerns, opposition continues to stall the construction process for this cell tower.

Strategy for Support

Companies need to look at their strategy for building public support to counter the NIMBY effect because the likelihood for a smooth entitlement process for their cell tower project is at risk. Cellular providers in particular run the risk of losing customers because of poor service from inadequate number of towers in the area. According to Pricewaterhouse Coopers in 2012, customers switch service providers every 48 months, indicating that consumers are quick to take their business elsewhere because of inadequate service.

Having been in the business of running public affairs campaigns to build public support for controversial projects for nearly 20 years, I can tell you that the key piece of the puzzle missed by companies in their public outreach strategy is the campaign-style approach the opponents seem to do so well.

Too often, cell tower companies do not offer an aggressive public affairs campaign when they announce a project, often letting crucial time pass between when the proposal is announced and when public outreach begins. Opponents use this time to build opposition and sway residents against these projects. By running a political-style campaign, you can reach all residents, identify the supporters and harness them into action for your project. Here are some critical tactics that cell tower companies should consider in their outreach efforts.

Announce your proposal wisely

When announcing a project, have a few pieces of direct mail ready to hit all households in the host community to explain the benefits of the project. Follow this up with newspaper, Web ads and using phone banks to further identify supporters. The advantage of phone banks is that, unlike random sample poll, each household receives a short, persuasive call to identify particular residents as supporters to determine their willingness to assist the campaign by writing a letter or attending a hearing. Have an open house to answer residents’ questions and recruit supporters. All of this should be done in the first few weeks after announcing the project to prevent the opposition from solidifying and taking over the entire project narrative. Too often, companies lose precious time between announcing a project and disseminating information to the community.

Meet with identified supporters

Once a database of supporters has been build from the mailers, ads, and phone calls, the developer should meet with them so that their support is acknowledged as critical to the campaign efforts as well as to inform them of their potential as a grassroots force that can begin to write letters to public officials and the newspapers, and that they should attend key public hearings to speak out. Rarely will a supporter write a letter on behalf of a project or attend and speak at a public hearing if you have not had this face-to-face contact with them previously.

Build grassroots support

In addition to reaching out to residents, stakeholders and well-known members of the community, along with businesses, associations, and other civic groups should also be met with to attempt to bring them on board for support.

Keep an updated database

As you begin to identify supporters of your project, that information should be maintained in a database to refer to throughout the entitlement process. Coding your supporters by local legislative districts can also help if you need to target a particular local legislator who may be wavering in support, especially in the specific project area where a cell tower is proposed. The key goal of these types of campaigns is to never allow the opponents an opportunity to seize the moment because of inaction by the developing company. It’s not enough to simply announce a new cell tower and assume that everyone will be onboard to support it. By running an aggressive campaign and identifying supporters, you have taken a key step in ensuring approval. Engaging the identified members of a community who support your project is the next step, and one that will allow vocal supporters to outnumber opponents. Strategies include petitions, letters and crowds at public hearings.

In 2014 and beyond, expect NIMBY opposition to cell towers. Meeting this challenge with proven grassroots techniques will be critical to making 2014 a success for new cell tower construction.