Benjamin Franklin coined the term about death and taxes being the only certainties in life. He neglected to add a third certainty, and that’s ironically change. As a constant force, change often comes wrapped in uncertainty, which leads to emotionally charged anxieties that fuel the fear of change.
So, when it comes to land development, fear of change quickly manifests into status quo attitudes that drives community opposition against a project.
When developers formally submit their real estate applications with the municipality, they unknowingly start a clock that triggers community fears. In fact, it’s not uncommon for controversial projects to have been misconstrued by community gossip before an application is even filed. Once the application is officially in the hands of the planning department, fears of change have been validated and wheels of opposition to demonize your project have begun to turn.
“The devil you know” mindset is much more comfortable and desirable than embracing the unknowns of change. Moreover, when a project is perceived as a loss equal to or greater than any proposed gain, citizens fall into a state of “loss aversion” that instigates and mobilizes community resistance.
In a 2018 Psychology Today article, What Is Loss Aversion? Losses Attract More Attention than Comparable Gains. Shahram Heshmat of the University of Illinois at Springfield noted that “loss aversion is an important aspect of everyday economic life. The idea suggests that people tend to stick with what they have unless there is a good reason to switch. The loss aversion is a reflection of a general bias in human psychology (status quo bias) that makes people resistant to change. So, when we think about change, we focus more on what we might lose rather than on what we might get.”
In the context of land development and loss aversion, homeowners can visualize and physically feel the pain of losing what they have, more than they can see the benefits gained from a new development. Therefore, when a few citizens begin to speak out against a project via the digital grapevine, it can stoke the loss aversion fears of residents. When enough citizens fear change, the press and elected officials begin taking notice, and projects find themselves in the crosshairs of public conflict.
A 2004 study from the NAIOP Research Foundation entitled “This Land is My Land … But It Could Be Our Land: Developing Influencer Relationships to Accelerate Development Success,” found that “diminishing open space is alarming people into action, as is the perceived poor track record of community planning and zoning in many areas.” Additionally, the study noted that many groups “don’t trust government agencies or planning boards to make what they feel are the right decisions for their communities.”
Although this study was published two decades ago, the data still holds up. This explains why we see local news reports framing developers negatively in the David vs. Goliath narrative across the nation. It affirms the time-worn model fraught with distrust, doubt and cynicism.
The fearful underdog defending his community is a very powerful and persuasive optic driving the emotional rhetoric, advocacy, and attacks that emboldens anti-development resistance. Add to it the digital grapevine spreading misconstrued gossip, you get the trifecta of chaos, controversy and crisis.
Community opposition is political, emotional and chaotic. Emotionally charged attacks overwhelm the facts, as well as undermine the merits of your project. It’s no mystery that in politics, emotions are more persuasive than facts. The merits of bringing great paying jobs, creating a better quality of life and offering other improvements, falls on death ears with elected officials who get caught up in the emotional turmoil – especially during an election year!
When it comes to turning public conflict into corporate and community goodwill, it’s important to understand why people oppose projects and how they begin tipping the scales away from the legal, logical and linear path of the application toward political turmoil.
Once you understand the why and how, then you can begin incorporating strategies and best practices to effectively mitigate opposing interests.
About Patrick Slevin
Patrick heads SL7 Consulting, a national public affairs practice headquartered in Tallahassee, Florida. His corporate client list represents Fortune 500 companies, multinational corporations, and regional developers spanning the globe as far as Australia.
Patrick Slevin is a highly sought speaker on the NIMBY subject matter. For over 15 years, Patrick has presented before real estate organizations from coast-to-coast including ULI, NAIOP, ICSC, CREW, BOMA, APA, as well as homebuilders, affordable housing, investors, energy, local chambers, EDCs, and municipalities.