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How to Win the Fight against NIMBYism

Picture this:  the CEO of a large biomass 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 Massachusetts. 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 towns near the proposed site created an opposition group to fight the project. Despite the fact that the new plant would generate clean 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 new facility 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 to, 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. First of all, the biomass industry was so new that people simply feared it as the unknown. In addition, with the technology available during that period, building a biomass plant in a neighborhood could mean noise, traffic, and pollution. While those days are gone, the sentiment of opposition remains, as does the stigma of a biomass 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 biomass 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, asking local residents about 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 way 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 grass roots 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 biomass 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.

Al Maiorino started Public Strategy Group, Inc. in 1996. He has developed and managed multiple corporate public affairs campaigns in a variety of industries such as gaming, cable television, retail development, auto racing, power plant/wind farm projects, and housing/residential projects. Al received his BA in political science and a MA in American Studies from the University of Connecticut.

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4 thoughts on “How to Win the Fight against NIMBYism

  1. Very well stated Al and the NIMBYs now have a big brother if you will in the BANANAs – Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything syndrome. This group, often a thinly disguised ultra-green group like Greenpeace or the Sierra Club, portrays themselves as the ‘voice of scientific reason’ (with “scientific” now the IPCC socially accepted catch-phrase) as they offer a myriad of half-baked reasons for why project X just isn’t needed anywhere ‘if only’ we would simply do Y or Z. Usually Y or Z means a significant change in lifestyle and an unrealistic expectation that society will instantly and totally make a 180 degree shift in resource, energy, and/or infrastructure systems use.

    Be very wary when the BANANAs start to show up! Logic, for all intents and purposes just went out the window.

  2. I am surprised that you did not recommend that CEOs responsible for major projects hire public involvement firms at the outset of a project to help gauge the communities’ attitudes in areas where the companies are new to the community. If they find no resistance, then they are done and there will be no need for an anti-NIMBY campaign. If they detect resistence, then a preventative campaign can go a long way to prevent proliferation of negative attitudes. Waiting until there is organized opposition is penny wise and pound foolish because battle lines have already been drawn and collateral damage is inevitable, even if the project is eventually built.

  3. NIMBYs tend to be middle to upper-middle class people. The greatest by-product of NIMBYism is putting facilities in low-income neighborhoods where people are not organized – they’re just working hard at surviving – creating an environmental justice issue.

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