Don’t Let NIMBYism Deter You

April 2011 Vol. 238 No. 4

Al Maiorino, President, Public Strategy Group in Boston, MA

Picture this: the CEO of a large energy corporation wants to pursue a new development. The economic difficulties haven’t slowed his company, so he decides to build a new plant near a small town in Midwest USA.

The company’s management team constructs the business plan, collects the proper paperwork and gets ready for the approval process. All of a sudden the zoning commission holds off on granting their permit. Why? Residents of the areas near the proposed site created an opposition group to fight the project.

Despite the fact that the new plant would generate cheap energy to power up several towns, increase the tax revenue and improve the local economy, the community doesn’t seem to understand these benefits. The residents say the plant would be too close to their homes and may be potentially hazardous to their health. They say it would create too much noise, pollution, and traffic, and would obstruct their views.

This is when the CEO realizes that opposition is indeed a road block that may halt or even destroy his project. So what does he do now?

The problem that this company is faced with is not so uncommon. It is called the ‘Not In My Backyard Syndrome’(or NIMBYism). It consists of strong opposition by one person or a group of people to a new project or development in their community. NIMBYs, as they are commonly referred as, are very likely to organize quickly to communicate their opposition to a local project in an effort to curb development.

The origins of NIMBYism are somewhat vague. Some scholars believe the concept originated as early as the 1950s. However, the practice of communal opposition to development blossomed in the 1980s. During that time, community concerns were reasonable and justified in most cases. With the technology available during that period, building a power plant could mean noise, traffic, and pollution.

While those days are gone, the sentiment of opposition remains, as does the stigma of an energy development near one’s home. With the use of modern technology and strict government regulations, the inconvenience caused by any sort of development is usually reduced to the minimum.

The NIMBYs, however, always find a reason to oppose development. It seems that very often they are simply “in it to win it.” They oppose just for the sake of making a statement. The “Backyard” has grown so vastly that nowadays NIMBYism affects companies all over the world. From New York to
Tokyo, businesses in the power and energy industry are looking for ways to win the NIMBY battle.

If your firm finds itself involved in a NIMBY fight, take the steps necessary to ensure the proper message is getting out to the public. Very often the opposition stems from misinformation and poor communication between project representatives and the community. In this case, it is better to play on the offensive. Instead of waiting for the opposition to grow, present them with the facts.

It is necessary to look for local support and build allies in order to form a supporter coalition. First and foremost, you need to identify and create a database of local residents who are in favor, against, or
undecided about the project.

A good way to begin is by carrying out a poll or a phone bank, inquiring local residents on their view of the renewable energy industry in general, and about your development plan in particular. The results of the surveys may then be published to showcase the positive attitude in the community toward your venture.

Once the database is created, it has to be maintained and updated frequently for the campaign management to be aware of the changes in the local opinion. One was to do this is through a targeted direct mail and/or advertising campaign. In addition, a strong social media campaign is a modern and necessary tool to spread your message, reach out to the community and provide supporters with a communication outlet.

Now that you have distinguished supporters from opposition, the next step is to reach out to third-party groups that support your development. These groups could be anything from small businesses to a local decision maker. Those companies or groups who you have had a positive relationship with or will benefit from your project should be encouraged to participate in the campaign.

Residents should express their support through writing letters to their elected officials or newspapers. Those who are looking to support further can attend public hearings where they can speak about the benefits of your project. Most likely, an independent pro-group would have emerged by now and will actively participate in all aspects of the campaign.

You may choose to fight NIMBY on your own. However, experience shows that hiring a specialized firm will provide you with the necessary tools and tactics to ensure a victory for your development. Trained professionals from a grassroots firm will make sure that the correct message from your company is being distributed to the community and the silent majority is heard. The way you approach the situation will make all the difference.

When it came down to it, the CEO of that energy corporation had a decision to make. He could choose to ignore the NIMBY fight, avoid communicating with the local community and take the situation to an
unnecessary level of tension. Instead, the company’s management team hired a specialized firm that developed a strategy, engaged in conversation with the community and encouraged the proponents of the project to voice their support. Soon after the conflict was put to rest, the permit was granted and the company went on to build the plant.