In theory, these should be golden years for developing new facilities in the waste and recycling sectors. A long-lasting recession has left states and municipalities in dire need of alternative revenue sources. Population growth and consumption habits have only accelerated waste creation and the need for the infrastructure to dispose of it. And a growing environmentalist movement has placed recycling and responsible waste disposal at the forefront of the public consciousness. Yes, in theory, there has never been a less stressful time to seek a permit in solid waste management and recycling.
But, as Albert Einstein once noted, “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they’re not.” And in practice, waste and recycling industries are facing a storm of rejected proposals, angry crowds and nasty headlines. In practice, winning approval for new projects has become harder than ever. And there is no reason to think it will get any easier unless we rethink our approach to the entire project-approval process.
Experience has shown us that waste and recycling firms frequently make three critical errors as they attempt to win approval of a new landfill or similar facility.
Know the Political Landscape Before Announcing the Project
In evaluating sites for a solid waste disposal facility of any type or size, a responsible project developer will do its homework. It will hire a bevy of engineers and specialists to determine site suitability, including a hydro-geological survey, soil suitability, environmental impact estimate, wetlands and endangered species analysis, etc. It will test the permeability of the subsurface clay layer and determine how best to avoid groundwater sources. While these studies and the experts that perform them are expensive, so is the failure to consider the political landscape prior to announcing the project.
Technical analysis will tell you what sites are best to develop; a political analysis will tell you what sites can be developed. A proper survey of the political atmosphere surrounding each potential site will give a developer an understanding of where its time, energy and money will be best spent. Over and over again, waste and recycling companies march into permitting battles whose outcomes have been determined from the start. Nine months and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal and engineering fees later, they acknowledge defeat and move on to the next site, only to face the same hurdles. While some will eventually strike gold, an early understanding of the political challenges and how to overcome them will reduce the number of denied permits and the amount of time before securing a successful approval.
A proper political survey considers a wide range of factors: Who are the relevant decision makers for permitting? Are they directly elected, and thus more sensitive to public pressure, or appointed? How long are their terms, and when are they next up for re-election/re-appointment? Are they safe, entrenched incumbents, or fragile first-termers from swing districts? How have individual decision makers voted on similar issues in the past? How has the region as a whole reacted to similar issues in the past? How strong a presence do the natural allies and enemies of landfill development have in the region? Is the proposed site in a politically important or sensitive area? What is the history of solid waste within this municipality?
These are just a few of the factors that a good political survey considers. Done correctly, it will distill these concerns into a fair and honest appraisal of how challenging of a permitting battle the site will present. That allows waste and recycling firms to avoid lost causes and focus their efforts only on sites that will bear fruit.
Enter With Your Head Held High
The second mistake lies in the introduction of the project and company to the community. Many waste and recycling firms, having been burned so often in so many localities, come to town already in a sort of defensive crouch. They are wary and insecure, quick to speak but slow to listen, and that attitude trickles down from the management to the press, the public and decision makers. In short, once you act as though you’re on trial, don’t be surprised when you’re found guilty.
This problem is made worse by the tendency among developers to try to avoid conflict by keeping a low profile. Invariably, this tactic — essentially, stealing into town in the dead of night — will backfire. Opponents will get wind of the project — if not on their own, then with a helping hand from a rival waste firm. And when they do, all that initial secrecy will be used against the project. Opponents and the press will ask what the firm is trying to hide. Uninvolved citizens, who might otherwise have been supporters of the project, will first hear about it through the filter of a loose-with-the-facts NIMBY brigade. And the chance to earn credibility by beginning the permitting process in an open and transparent manner will have been lost.
Instead, we advise our clients to go in with a bit of fanfare and with a well-developed public relations strategy. Don’t rely on the merits of the project; go speak with abutters and neighbors immediately. Let them know what you are trying to accomplish, and remind them your project is in the “concept” stage, and you want their buy-in and their feedback. Allowing residents to have a “line in” to the company will pay dividends as the entitlement process unfolds.
As the project moves forward, consider placing ads in the newspaper and on the radio, introducing the company and its management to the area. Talk about prior success stories and your goals for this region. Dispel myths before they become facts. Arrange to sit down with local newspaper editorial boards and columnists. Schedule meetings with elected officials and stakeholders. The less you act like you have something to hide, the less people will believe you have something to hide.
Don’t wait for the local government to extort a host agreement out of you — draft a generous one before you set foot into town, tailored to the needs of the community, and dare opponents to turn it down. Carry that draft, or proffer package, around like it’s a shield, because it is. Whenever possible, translate your proffer from generalities into specifics: It’s not a $10,000 contribution to the school board; it’s a new math and English textbook for every high school student in the county. It’s not $15,000 earmarked for highway maintenance; it’s a promise to enhance that county road to make it safer for the entire community.
In short, people see what they expect to see. Defy expectations. The more you portray your project as an opportunity to be excited about instead of a calamity to be suffered through, the more people will believe it.
Create a Movement
Choosing the right site and making the right introduction are important steps. But equally important is building the grassroots organization that will be your most effective lobbyist as decision time approaches. Companies that fail to invest time and effort into community outreach and organization will find themselves outnumbered and outgunned in any public setting.
Too often, the scene looks something like this: On one side of the room sit dozens or hundreds of boisterous, angry and passionate citizens. They are eager to speak, they carry homemade signs, and their numbers are so great that they spill over onto the other side and into the hallway. On the other side, huddled together like soldiers under siege, sit the senior management of the waste disposal firm. They may not come wearing their best suits (their shoes often give them away), but “not being from ‘round here,” they do look out of place. Their legal counsel, a hotshot lawyer from the big city, will occasionally lean over to whisper advice. Their engineers, respected professionals who have done excellent and painstaking work, will adjust a series of charts and maps that nobody will ever look at or read. Their faces may as well be carved from stone.
Sound familiar? When the time comes to approve or deny, decision makers go where the votes are. The good ones will even vote the right way when the balance of public opinion is against you, so long as you can demonstrate that there are some supporters of your project, some constituency you’ve managed to tap. But if you can’t muster up a single supporter at a hearing, or a dozen favorable letters from local residents, no official who values his or her job will side with you.
Turning people out to the public hearings is the toughest part of the process. And when we say public hearings, we mean all of them. Officials will often have their minds made up going into that last meeting, but they will remember the turnout at that first “informational meeting” in the high school gym, or the “community meeting” at the neighboring church. You have to turn your supporters out each and every time.
Finally, the movement you create must involve the abutters. You can create a solid organization of people that live on the other side of the county that agree with your property rights argument, or like your promise to generate revenue and cost savings, or believe your project will create high-paying jobs. But if elected officials feel the abutting neighborhood has been ignored, and you’ve neglected to engage them, prepare to lose.
By investing in the blocking-and-tackling of building a grassroots organization locally and across the municipality, waste and recycling firms can alter the dynamics of that nightmare scene above. They can pack the room with their own supporters; not relatives of employees, but real, live locals. They can generate phone calls and letters to decision makers. They can get letters to the editor published in the local paper. In other words, they can create a movement to counter the NIMBY crowd.
By being aware of these common missteps and how to overcome them, the waste and recycling industry will find themselves in a better position to get new and expansion projects approved. The old way of applying for permits — stumbling from rejected site to rejected site, trying to fly under the radar and facing down an angry crowd at public hearings — has never been an efficient strategy, but it is becoming even less so in an age where technology and social media make it easier than ever for movements to form. The next wave of approved projects will go to those who recognize that fact and take steps to address it, instead of burying their heads in the sand.
Darden Copeland (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Michael Sherry (email@example.com) work in the Nashville office of the Calvert Street Group, a leading national public affairs, corporate and political consulting firm focusing on state and local affairs, land-use and development, and grassroots lobbying.