NIMBY Notes: Know Your Abutters

Good fences may make good neighbors, but don’t try to wall off your facility.

Quick, developers: can you rattle off the names, addresses and occupations of five people who live adjacent to your proposed project, and why they support it? If you can’t, it’s time for you or your employees to start knocking on doors. In land-use politics, no slice of the community is more valuable than the abutters – the folks who live directly adjacent to wherever you are planning to build your landfill, transfer station or other waste facility.

A recent controversy in Deschutes County, Ore., demonstrates the impact abutters can have. There, county officials have proposed increasing the methane gas production of Knott Landfill (by injecting it with steam to accelerate decomposition) and capturing and selling it as green energy.

The plan is solid from an engineering, economic and environmental perspective, but it is facing opposition from – you guessed it – concerned abutters. Already, they have tapped a figure from the Energy Justice Network to raise awareness about the dangers of landfill gas. What’s worse, the landfill in question sits right next to a local high school, making the parents of every student enrolled there an abutter by proxy. This local debate has yet to be resolved, but by jamming up the works as they have so far, these concerned abutters illustrate just how important it is to reach out to your neighbors.

There are several reasons for the outsized significance of these individuals. First, and most obviously, as the ones with the most to gain or lose from your project, they are by far the most likely to engage in the kind of community organizing (petition gathering, speaking out at city council meetings, writing letters to the editor, etc.) that can save or condemn it. “All politics is local,” Tip O’Neil famously said, and nowhere is more local than one’s backyard. The abutter’s proximity to your parcel makes him or her more inclined than most to get involved in the public debate surrounding the project. The only question is whose side they’ll come down on.

The second critical aspect of abutters is that they are frequently the centerpiece around which the broader anti-development campaign revolves. Any campaign against your development – organized by the local environmental defense league, say, or an unscrupulous rival waste company – needs people to hold up as victims of the project. The campaign cannot exist in the abstract; it needs flesh-and-blood examples of folks that will be harmed by your winning a permit.

Invariably, abutters serve that role for the broader campaign: the ones whose property values will go down, whose health will be impacted and whose quality of life will decline according to the scaremongerers. In other words, they are the faces your opponents will try to attach to all the misleading statistics they have concocted about your project.

Given that the couple-dozen to couple-hundred households right alongside your property are so critical to your project’s success, the next step should be clear: Get to know these people! For the next few weeks or months, you and your team should make these homes your world. Make phone calls. Knock on their doors. Sit down for coffee with them and engage in actual conversation, not some pre-scripted sales pitch. Folks will have questions, and that’s fine. It will be your team’s job to follow up with answers to their questions.

The care and attention you demonstrate in this early period will be remembered when the campaign against you gets going and opponents are looking for abutters to serve as figureheads for the opposition. It’s a lot harder to mobilize against someone who’s sat down with you on more than one occasion, looked you in the eye, and done his level best to address your questions and concerns. Even if you haven’t made an abutter a true believer, you’ve substantially increased the odds that she will choose to sit this fight out rather than work against you.

So, back to the beginning: Who are your five supportive abutters you can rattle off to a skeptical planning commission? Take the time to focus on these folks now, while your project is still on the drawing board, or you may find yourself a year older and a dozen lawyers and consultants poorer, standing once again in front of the drawing board.

Darden H. Copeland is managing director of the Calvert Street Group, a public affairs consulting firm focused on state & local affairs, land-use and development, and grassroots lobbying.

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