Book Review: NIMBY Wars: The Politics of Land Use
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NIMBY Wars: Your own personal yellow brick road (map)

Review of: NIMBY Wars: The Politics of Land Use
By: P. Michael Saint, Robert J. Flavell, and Patrick F. Fox
Saint University Press, 2009, 225 pages

Review by: Jason Hayes, M.E.Des., Communications Director, American Coal Council
Originally web-published: Monday, 2010-01-04 15:33

One well-known literary figure, having recently undergone a drastic change in the way they perceived and dealt with their local environment opined,

Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.”

When any organization considers applying for a development permit today, they may be muttering the same words as our hapless heroine above.

The land use planning landscape has changed drastically over the past few decades -- almost as much as the landscape had after Dorothy and Toto's breezy trip to Oz.

In the past, permitting decisions were often made in the offices or back rooms of land developers and elected officials, and having someone with the right pull on your side as good as assured a permit approval. Today however, the decision over whether to approve a development is fought out on the streets and in the media. “Experts” once ruled the day and the average citizen was refused admission to even the most cursory aspects of the planning process; now, those citizens are an integral part of it. But it's not only the local citizens that are getting involved. Thrown into the mix of developers, elected officials, and citizens, we also have special interests and stakeholder groups.

Some of those groups have money; some have political power and connections; some have a religious fervor for their chosen area or issue. Some groups have all three of those characteristics and much more. Some of the groups are home-grown, or “grassroots” in nature and some come from a capital city hundreds, or thousands of miles away, complete with their own bankroll, legal team, and public relations group.

Of course we can't forget that your competitors are also tossed in on top of that pile. They too are demanding a say in how, when, where, and why you might develop or update your land.

The recently published book, NIMBY Wars: The Politics of Land Use, gives readers a detailed look into the dog-eat-dog, cut-throat, and highly politicized world of land use planning. A short and simple recap of the book goes something like ... "preparation is indespensible" ... there is no room for the faint-of-heart or the unprepared here, and in this world, pride will go before destruction. In fact, one mis-step can cost millions or get your project flat out rejected.

As the authors of NIMBY Wars – Michael Saint, Robert Flavell, and Patric Fox – clearly demonstrate, the local citizens, special interest groups, and competitive interests that now play a key role in land use planning and politics can make or break your development project.

For the coal and energy industry, this book reinforces the reality that no plan for a new mine, an expanded mine, a new transmission line, a new generation station, or even a new employee parking lot and accompanying turn off will be immediately – or even easily – approved. But, lest the enlightened among us take this as a slight against the energy sources that have traditionally supplied our base load electricity, the authors also show how so-called green projects will likely face the same stiff competition and resistance from all sides. Put more simply, there are no more 'slam-dunk' projects – green, or otherwise. There will always be the NIMBYs, or people who say, “Not In My Backyard!”

Michael Saint, co-author of NIMBY Wars and CEO of Saint Consulting describes how,

Land use politics will play a major role in determining our energy future. Mining projects, new generation facilities, transmission lines — all require permits and approvals granted through a process that is increasingly politicized. And it’s not going to change. Congressmen and governors are not about to take away the NIMBY’s rights to say “no,” because people don’t vote for politicians who deny them the right to protect their own community.

As NIMBY Wars describes, the new reality is that land use planning has moved from the small network of “connected” individuals – developers, planners, and elected officials – into realm of advocacy and politics. Now, everyone with an interest and a willingness to get involved can, and likely will, have a say in the final land use decisions. And, like it or not, the approving agencies at the municipal, county, state, and federal levels are more likely to err on the side of doing nothing. They will often even turn down projects that propose to reclaim damaged or abandoned industrial sites, because the reclaimed site could change – forget making better or worse – traffic patterns, noise levels, dust levels, or any number of other site factors.

Saint and his co-authors show that to have your project approved, you must be prepared to address citizen and special interest concerns before they become an insurmountable block for the elected officials who are reviewing your plans. Project proponents must demonstrate to everyone involved that they have a plan to develop in a manner that will improve the area, while still protecting the interests, rights, and habits of all those other interested parties. Saint continues,

The coal industry should recognize better than most the perfect storm that hits when NIMBY groups and competitors gang up to press a political attack. Valid scientific studies and technology can be ignored when one side controls the politics.

The authors pull from their 25+ years of direct land use planning experience to reveal that although proper land use planning is an involved and expensive proposition, trying to cut corners will be far more expensive, and will likely get your proposal rejected. Thankfully, they also show that all is not lost and a mining company, utility, or developer can still pilot their way through this increasingly complex and costly maze.

NIMBY Wars provides an in-depth review of the recent changes in land use planning. It describes how land use planning has moved away from top-down controls, away from science and reason, and into the realm of feeling and politics. They explain how to develop an offensive plan against a development or a defensive campaign for a development, they show how to enlist locals (or "citizen soldiers"), they describe the development of campaigns plans and back up plans for when Plans A, B, and C don't work. They also provide a detailed appendix of their past case work that shows how land use policy is made today.

Call it your own personal yellow brick road (map) to land use planning, because without it and the information it holds, you're not likely to enlist the aid of a local Glenda the Good Witch. And we all know that without Glenda helping out, you're not making it past the hordes of winged-monkeys and wicked witches that are hovering over your next development.

For more information on NIMBY Wars or to order this book, go to