When Public Hearings Go Horribly Wrong

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Having a good project is not enough.
Remember that it is all about the politics.

A client recently asked me how to deal with an angry mob. If you are confronting an angry mob of residents opposing your project at a public hearing, you’re not alone. I can tell you it is happening across the US and Europe with greater intensity and frequency. But what now?
If you have just walked into your public hearing and you are surprised by the level of opposition, you have made a number of mistakes.


The days when developers could cut a back room deal with officials and quietly walk through the local approvals process are long gone. The politics of land use has changed.

Developers should be conducting aggressive outreach to abutters, neighbors and community activists early to identify supporters and opponents and gain an understanding of what the issues are. If you have been surprised by an angry mob, you have big problems. Local officials are very unlikely to want to commit political suicide by voting for your project in front of a mob of angry constituents. Winning approval now will be a tough and very expensive fight- if you can win it at all.

Identify Opponents Early.

Meet one on one and get an understanding of what their issues are. Meeting with you, the “evil developer”, will put a face on the project and humanize it. These people are afraid of the unknown and how your development will impact their real estate values and the character of their community. See if you can allay their fears or make changes to your plan that will make them more accepting of it.

Engage Opponents in a Dialogue.

You want them talking to you about the project and not protesting at City Hall. You want them to be able to call you about crazy rumors that may spread about your project rather than spreading fear and mistrust. It is time consuming and often frustrating but these people are worried about their homes and their community (except for those opponents who are being organized by your competitors but that’s another story) and responsible developers want to build the best projects possible. Remember that every mistake, every lie, every unkept promise and every bad project is likely to haunt every future project you ever propose in this age of social networking and internet savvy neighbors.

Mutual Gains is the First and Best Goal.

What can we do to make the project work for everyone? What can we do to make this project benefit and enhance the community? If changes can be made that will alleviate some of the concerns the neighbors have and cause them to not oppose the project, that’s a home run for everyone. But…

Minimize the Intractable Opposition.
There is almost always some intractable opposition. These are the people who refuse to talk to you.

They come to the hearings and complain about traffic, water runoff, light spillage, etc. but they refuse to meet with you or your experts. They are not interested in hearing the facts or working with you to make the project better. When dealing with these people you must make every effort to reach out to them and to address their concerns and you must document it. You need to show the local board that you have been accommodating and reasonable. You have gone above and beyond to be a good neighbor and to include them in the process but they are completely unreasonable. Often the opponents will hurt their own cause by making crazy demands or allegations. You must be able to demonstrate that you have done everything possible to work with them.

Demonstrate Support

Most importantly, you must be able to demonstrate support for the project in numbers equal or greater to the opposition. You are unlikely to win any vote if the room is filled with angry constituents. You must be able to show support for the project with local residents willing to stand up at a hearing and express support. You can also show support with petitions, cards, letters, videos, people holding signs and phone calls and emails to officials but you absolutely must show support.

Having a good project is not enough. Remember that it is all about the politics.


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