Mr. (Un)Popularity

SO, you think permitting a power plant or shopping center is cumbersome? Try a landfill. According to a recently released survey, landfills rank as the most opposed development project, surpassing casinos, Wal-Marts and quarries.

Of the Americans polled for the Boston-based Saint Consulting Group's second annual Saint Index, 87 percent expressed opposition to landfill development in their neighborhoods, up from 82 percent in 2005.

The statistics vary little between demographic groups. Whether based on age, ethnicity, income, geographic region, gender, education level or political affiliation, no group registered less than 76 percent opposition. At the top end, Americans earning more than $150,000 per year unanimously gave landfills a thumbs-down.

Patrick Fox, president of the Saint Consulting Group, emphasizes the “not in my backyard” aspect of the opposition. “People don't necessarily oppose landfills. It's that they oppose them in their communities,” he says. And landfills are not alone in their lack of popularity.

The Saint Index, which measures the “politics of land development,” found that opposition to development in general continues to increase. In fact, 70 percent of those surveyed support using taxes to protect land from development. People foremost were concerned with protecting their property values, followed by retaining the character of their communities.

When it comes to fighting proposed projects, Fox says that residents are becoming politically more sophisticated and active. In fact, three-fourths of respondents believed that “the relationship between elected officials and developers makes the permitting process unfair.” “The backroom deals that used to work for developers go right out the window when there are 300 angry residents standing in a hearing room,” Fox adds.

To mitigate opposition, Fox, who has worked both for and against landfill development, recommends getting into the communities early and meeting with the main detractors, including residents living closest to the proposed project. Sharing the plan with them and being willing to make changes may sway opinions. And gathering signatures from senior citizens, unions and other groups can help with what Fox refers to as the “numbers game.”

“See how many people you can placate by building a good project, how many you can get to show up at a public meeting and say that they had concerns but don't oppose it,” he says. “You need to generate enough support so that the elected officials can vote knowing that they aren't going to get voted out of office if they support it.”

Results from the survey are based on telephone interviews conducted in September and October 2006 with 1,000 randomly selected respondents.