Manage Digital Opposition to Real Estate Development

An early outreach game plan can mitigate zoning protests

by Adam Baugh

In my line of work with real estate and land-use entitlements, it’s not uncommon to engage with upset neighbors opposed to development. Whether it’s called NIMBY-ism (Not In My Backyard) or CAVErs (Citizens Against Virtually Everything), changing the status quo can certainly elicit strong emotions and intense anti-development sentiment. 

In days past, those opposing a zoning case might circulate a petition, wear matching shirts or buttons or bring signs to protest at city hall. Today’s opposition is much different and includes social media postings, digital meetups, activist websites, online trolling and harassment, e-petitions, video production and more. In a recent instance, I saw one individual create personal websites attacking local city councilmembers to shame them for a vote they had yet to take, for a case that had yet to even be filed. Essentially, it was a proverbial shot across the bow, warning that if they took such action, they would risk public ridicule, shame and scorn. 

Nobody is immune to what an online vigilante might post about them or their project. There is simply no accountability for them and if their aim is to stir up opposition, it’s frankly very easy to do. Thus, in a digital world, how might one manage and respond to digital opposition to new development? Here are some tips that have worked well in other situations.

First, community outreach and proper messaging are key. Rather than letting the opposition overtake the story, it’s important the applicant frames the issue and highlights true facts. This is best handled by thorough community outreach that involves engagement with nearby owners and affected neighbors. Working one-on-one with nearby homeowner associations, adjacent neighbors and local organizations can help the applicant address concerns, correct misinformation and identify advocates for the project. 

I saw this firsthand with a case in South Phoenix that found some initial opposition in an online neighbor app called Nextdoor. However, once we were able to implement an outreach plan that included the adjacent HOA, next door neighbors, and local community leaders, we were able to identify support that outweighed any opposition. Through the course of the zoning case, we were able to call on that support to balance against the opposition and tell our story.

The second step is to create an equally active online support campaign through a project website, social media posting and targeted outreach. This means focusing on the advantages of the proposal and how the community will benefit from its construction, and not giving oxygen to wild accusations that will surface. People will love to debate the issue, not because they want to be informed but rather to show their online “friends” how courageous they are fighting from behind a keyboard.

A good rule of thumb is to not waste energy engaging in online debates. There will always be detractors who, in most instances, are driven more by emotion than facts. An online agitator is rarely willing to consider a developer’s reasoning and justification. As the Bernard Shaw phrase goes, “Never wrestle with a pig. You get dirty and, besides, the pig likes it.”

It’s important to focus on the strengths of the case. Does staff support it? Does the councilmember like it? Does it bring new jobs, housing, improve blight, address a longstanding vacancy, etc.? The most effective approach is to frame the project by the benefits it provides and highlight its strengths above all else.

Citizen involvement is a staple of our community, is mandated by state statute, and encouraged by local ordinances. Adapting to the digital world offers developers a new opportunity to tell their story.  

An experienced problem-solver with a talent for removing obstacles that impede development, Adam Baugh is a land use and zoning attorney and partner at Withey Morris, PLC. While his skillsets include obtaining zoning and land use entitlements for the full scope of development clients and substantive work in liquor licensing, Baugh has developed unique experience working with infill development projects across the Valley. His success has helped clients obtain rezone approvals, stipulation changes, variances, use permits, site plan approvals, plats, and more.

Did You Know: According to a study published by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at U.C. Berkeley, political opposition to housing development was found to predict higher housing prices, longer project delays and a lower likelihood of zoning reform. In a time of intense housing demand, neighbor opposition to new development leads to skyrocketing rents and unattainable value increases since new housing inventory is roadblocked and delayed.

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