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Using the dark arts of land-use politics to defeat NIMBYs

November 23, 2009|By Jonathan Birchall

It is a few years since Tesco, the British supermarket group, had a tricky encounter with a population of burrowing owls in California.

The small endangered birds were cited in a legal challenge to the construction of a huge distribution center east of Los Angeles that now supplies Tesco's U.S. chain of Fresh & Easy grocery stores.

The suit, eventually defeated, was seen as the work not of concerned owl lovers but of an informal alliance between the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and local supermarket businesses -- both threatened by Tesco's U.S. debut.

It is a good example of the local political shenanigans and Machiavellian manipulation that keep the authors of "Nimby Wars" in business.

The book is co-written by Michael Saint, founder of Saint Consulting, which describes itself as a "management consulting firm that specializes in winning zoning and land-use battles for global and national companies" -- an activity that the authors, who all work for Saint, regularly compare in the book to street fighting.

These are the kind of people you call in when it turns out that the local community does not want your new hospital or cellphone tower.

Or if you want to stop Wal-Mart opening near your profitable grocery store.

The authors have produced what amounts to an introductory promotional handbook to the dark arts of land-use politics, which argues that this is a job which requires an expert professional approach.

Do not rely on a lawyer, they say; avoid the local political fixer; forget about public relations.

There is plenty of business to keep Saint busy.

Its research suggests that in North America and in Britain, the NIMBY (not in my backyard) complex has turned into BANANA (build absolutely nowhere anywhere near anything).

Because Lulus (locally unwanted land usages) are decided by local politicians, planning is a question of whether they think giving a project the green light will lose votes.

"The local land-use permitting process is totally political and is thus controlled by those who control the ballot box," the authors write, in what is the central tenet of the book and their consulting firm.

So conduct the battle like a political campaign, they say. If necessary, covertly organize a group of supporters to attend planning meetings.

You must be ready for anything, the authors say. Keeping your own supporters in line may prove to be one of the hardest challenges.

The authors also suggest using aliases to check out planning applications, driving around in a car with local license plates to prevent arousing suspicion, and avoiding the use of local photocopying services.

Such tactics are intriguing. Sadly, the book fails to describe the shenanigans in which the authors have been involved, which makes this book less John Grishamesque and frank than it should have been.

Jonathan Birchall is New York-based correspondent for the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.

Nimby Wars:

The Politics of Land Use

P. Michael Saint, Patrick F. Fox and Robert J. Flavell

Saint University Press: 240 pp, $29.99

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