Tactics for Battling Public Opposition to Residential Development Projects

The article below was Published July 2017 in Builder and Developer Magazine.

Builders and developers need to assess their strategy of building public support to counter local opposition to residential and multi-use projects, as the outcome for a smooth entitlement of their projects will otherwise be at risk.

Development projects of all types continue to be met with public opposition from groups protesting companies’ efforts to develop new projects. Whether residential, commercial or industrial, these projects that have the potential to create many new jobs and generate significant tax revenue are being met by opposition groups that cite various concerns. For example, a proposal by Richland Communities in Manteca, Calif. to turn a 184-acre lot into single family residential community was recently defeated by public opposition. The site currently hosts the Hat Mansion, which is viewed by residents in Manteca view as a landmark in the community despite the need for millions of dollars in renovations to bring the property up to code. The developers expected a smooth approval process but failed to account for the opposition they would face from members in the community.

Similarly, in 2016 the Cedar Rapids, Iowa city council declined a proposal for a $9 million, 45-unit low income development due to strong neighborhood opposition. According to an article in The Gazette written by B.A Morelli, the majority of City Council members were in support of the development proposed by CommonBond Communities but because of heavy public opposition who raised concerns over a multitude of issues including traffic and lack of sidewalks, the proposal required a two-thirds supermajority to pass. Defeated or delayed development projects, like those in Manteca and Cedar Rapids can have significant financial consequences and prohibit growth in a local community.

Builders and developers need to assess their strategy of building public support to counter local opposition to residential and multi-use projects, as the outcome for a smooth entitlement of their projects will otherwise be at risk. In the case of the proposed residential development projects in Manteca and Cedar Rapids, delays and eventual abandonment of the projects cost the local economies significant tax revenue and hundreds of new jobs.

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

Too often development proposals do not offer up an aggressive public affairs campaign when a project is announced, often letting crucial time pass between the announcement and launch of public outreach. 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 on behalf of your project. Here are some crucial tactics that companies should consider in their outreach efforts:

Digital Campaign

  • Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are two extremely successful and cost effective forms of campaigning. Because of the massive amounts of information consumed regularly on these sites, it is only palpable that they are a crucial tool in promoting a project of any sort. When using these platforms, it is important to know all the different features to use them as effectively as possible. For example, Facebook allows its users to create free pages for various topics and events that can then be shared and liked to grasp the attention of target audiences. With over a billion users, Facebook is guaranteed to help immensely in gaining local support for any proposal. Companies that start a support page dedicated to a particular development project on Facebook can then purchase ads to boost local support for their project. Twitter is another social media platform that encompasses several features that make promoting a certain project exceptionally easy. With the use of creative hashtags to spread the word, twitter is extremely effective in reaching target audiences. It is important to operate on these platforms that opponents will use to clear up myths and set the record straight for undecideds or potential supporters.
  • It is important to create a project-specific website that is directly related to the proposal for individuals to use as a reference point. On this website, there are a few items that are important to include. First, a page that allows people to submit letters of support directly to public officials and elected leaders is crucial. Imagine being an elected official and receiving a constant flow of supporter letters on a project? Second, include fact sheets and any other resources that may help gain support. Third, use the website as a platform to dispel rumors, update residents, and disseminate new information.

Grassroots Campaign

  • Announce the proposal with a press release that launches both your website, social media platforms and possibly a community open house. Be proactive, as messaging on the benefits of such project has a good story to tell. Hold an open house to answer residents’ questions and recruit supporters. All of this should be done in the first few weeks after announcing a project, to not allow the opposition to gel and take over the narrative.
  • Meet with identified supporters. Once you have a database of supporters built from outreach such as direct mail, ads and phone calls, developers should meet with supporters in groups or individually so that they know they are not alone in their support. These supporters are a grassroots force that can begin to write letters to public officials, the newspapers, and 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 without prior face to face contact with them.
  • Build grasstops support. In addition to reaching out to residents, it is also important to meet with stakeholders, well-known members of the community, businesses, associations and other civic groups to attempt to bring them on board for support.
    Keep an updated database. As supporters are identified, all contact information and notes on communication with them should be put into a database to refer to throughout the entitlement process. Coding your supporters by local legislative districts can also help if it becomes necessary to target a particular local legislator who may be wavering in support.
  • The primary goal of these grassroots campaigns is to never allow the opponents an opportunity to seize the moment because of inaction by the developer. Simply announcing a project is not enough to assume that everyone will be on board to support it. By running an aggressive campaign and identifying supporters locally, companies will start a step ahead. Knowing what to do with the identified members of a community who support your project is the next step, and it is one that will allow vocal support to outnumber opponents, whether it be petitions, letters or crowds at public hearings.

In 2017 and beyond, expect public opposition to development projects. Meeting this challenge with proven grassroots techniques and digital campaigns will be critical to making this year a success for companies looking to develop.