When I began pioneerplanning.com my intentions were to bring you new ideas in planning and also get my name out there. I also joined Twitter (@pioneerplanning) and have found it to be a very positive move in generating interest in this blog, as well as enhancing my job search and professional reach. I have also met some interesting people along the way including Patrick Fox of the Saint Consulting Group. I commented several weeks ago on a post of his and after a little professional back and forth he asked if I would be interested in reviewing their upcoming book NIMBY Wars. To say the least I was flattered and took the invitation. The book arrived several days later and I read it over the course of five days this past week.
NIMBY Wars is a swift read, clocking in at a quick 213 pages. It’s available in hard cover only at a list price of $29.99, but available at BN.com for $23.99 ($21.59 for members). The language used is technical but not overwhelming. It is evident that the authors tried spice up the wording to keep the reader interested, it worked for the most part, but a few times I found myself lost mid sentence wondering if they were talking about the same topic or person from earlier in the sentence. If a young campaign manager, planner, or public advocate is interested in the political warfare that is zoning and land use approvals this book is a must read. It gave me a good sense of the techniques and finesse needed to assure a positive result in the modern political realm of land use approvals. However, I could not get over the sense that the book was one big advertisement for the Saint Consulting Group by touting all their successes.
Essential to reading NIMBY Wars is always remembering that “local land use approvals are subject to local politics” they are by definition political decisions and every decision by a planning board or elected council are therefore, politically motivated, and can be swayed by the public and influenced by constituents. Remembering this throughout the book will help keep your mind on track. Often I found my mind wandering and thinking that there had to be other types of decisions. In some cases there are, but since the Saint Index, the Saint Consulting Group’s compilation of survey data compiled in 2005, showed Americans object to any new development and overwhelming 74% of the time (The Not In My Back Yard aka. NIMBY effect), getting the required votes for a new project requires more than a dazzling presentation or knowledgeable experts, it requires the help of political campaign managers, like the Saint Consulting Group.
The authors come across as battle tested veterans, and rightfully so, since the Saint Consulting Group has participated in over 1500 land use decisions in 44 states and 3 countries over the past 25 years. However, one has to wonder if the reason land use decisions have become political is because of companies like Saint Consulting Group or if they are merely reacting to the changing political atmosphere. In an email conversation with one of the authors, Patrick Fox, I learned that the Saint Consulting Group began as campaign managers for political offices and then branched into land use, which uses many of the same tactics.
I can say the book made me think differently about land use decisions, especially coming from my background as a public sector planner over the past 10 years. I am one of the “influential planner(s)” who is “not necessarily [an] even-handed processor of land use applications” and ”think they know better than the general public.” Getting approval from planners and elected officials is not enough and most of the book discusses the need to win public support for, or in some cases against, a development or rezoning. Few, if any, elected officials or planners would stand up to a room full of visibly angered constituents and vote for a project when it is clear they are against it. This is where the Saint Consulting Group works and their methods and lessons learned are explained, though I would have liked a little more detail and data in the case studies.
This is not a How To book and shouldn’t be looked at for suggestions on how a firm could enter the land use politics arena. It can, however, bring to light some examples and conditions that regularly arise when dealing with planning boards and city councils over development approvals. The most important thing to remember is it is always political and to handle the situation correctly you want the right people in your corner. Where we go from here even the author doesn’t know, but they expect more of the world to adopt Western style development approvals and the political fight to continue for quite some time, especially driven by the modern sense of entitlement that more and more residents are demonstrating. The techniques and heads up knowledge explained in NIMBY Wars is invaluable for any developer, planner, or campaign manager making their first foray into the world of large scale development, redevelopment, or rezoning.
I would like to thank the Saint Consulting Group and specifically Seth Cargiuolo and Patrick Fox for this opportunity and answering my many questions along the way. I hope this is the first of many book reviews and as I get more offers to review books or pick up ones I think will be interesting I will bring you more. Thank you for your support in reading this article and please take time to email me or leave a comment if you feel so moved.