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Addressing NIMBY concerns

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Landfills and power plants are not the only projects that communities oppose. Earning neighborhood support for any type of development -- be it a new shopping mall or small retail center -- can be challenging for developers.


According to a recent survey by the Center for Economic and Civic Opinion at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, 83 percent of suburban Americans say they do not want new development in their communities. Most say their communities are already overdeveloped or "fine the way they are."

These NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) ideals are becoming more and more prevalent. Residents are speaking out against large retail centers and apartment complexes by participating in organized neighborhood groups, signing petitions, lobbying elected officials and attending local hearings. With this type of resistance, what is a developer to do?

Proactive approach

With the growing disenchantment and resistance, smart developers are taking the proactive approach to solving this dilemma. First and foremost, developers should be open, honest and respectful of community members. Openness will help secure a positive working relationship and the ability to discuss project concerns in an objective, rather than personal, manner.

Developers must work to convince a community that the specific project is needed in the area. The most important factor is identifying and satisfying a community need. If the development -- such as a retail center -- is necessary in the area, then it will be easier to gain support for the project. Public outreach warrants a true understanding of the needs of the community and seeks to identify the common ground from which a quality project can be built. Broad-based support will be created by a project that meets community needs.

Lack of support can be a huge roadblock for a developer, as public participation is an important source of input for improving a project. However, when the conversation is based upon fear and a lack of information, a project proponent may be unable to undo the damage caused by committed opposition. Providing clear, credible data about a project can minimize opposition based on lack of information. Most public information is unilateral in nature. The builder sends message to the public, generally using tools such as newsletters, direct mail, Web pages or advertising. High-quality public information materials can effectively educate citizens about project facts and convey the excitement and lifestyle values of a project.

Generally, NIMBY supporters claim that new developments will increase local traffic, hurt small business, decrease property values, degrade the environment, spoil a community's small-town feel or generally strain public resources. However, many community fears arise from a lack of information on a project. Again, it is the responsibility of the developer and appropriate governmental agencies to ensure citizens have the best information to make an informed decision. It is incumbent upon the developer to be responsive to reasonable input that will result in a better project. Absent this, opponents of a project set the agenda for community perception.

NIMBY concerns can be dealt with positively. Recently, a drug store was approved in an older, affluent neighborhood that expressed concerns regarding traffic and noise. By working with the community to understand its concerns, developers designed the project to include a wall to buffer the residential neighborhood and an architectural style of high quality in concert with the surrounding community.

Big-box resistance

Communities tend to have the most resistance to larger retail and big-box stores. These appear to be unwelcome because of previous problems residents have had with these types of stores. Residents have a right to expect the highest quality development in their neighborhood. Unfortunately, some examples of poor quality site and architectural design of larger retail centers have resulted in a lack of trust between the community and developers. In addition, certain social issues have been associated with big-box and chain-store retail that now play out in the land use arena.

With a big-box store or similar development, NIMBY supporters fear that non-locals will disproportionately use the store, degrading the quality of life for locals. To address this issue, it is critical that project benefits be identified and used repeatedly as part of providing information for the project. Traffic improvements, open space set asides, improved streetscapes and contributions to the local tax base are all public benefits that need to be highlighted.

Some developers have avoided these fights by building in less developed areas on the outskirts of communities, but this solution isn't always the best. Each project must be evaluated within a larger context. Development that is consistent with a city's planning principles is a positive contribution to neighborhood development, regardless of location. However, leapfrog development that requires more frequent and lengthy trips puts additional burdens on infrastructure and public services.

Smart growth

One answer to this issue is smart growth. Smart growth development policies are a collection of land use planning techniques that feature compact, mixed-use, transit-oriented development with the objective of creating more attractive, livable, economically strong communities while protecting natural resources. The policies create a high quality of life for communities where residents have the choice to live, work and play. Mixed-use, walkable communities with a choice of housing types are highly desirable to many citizens. An important component to the smart growth mix is quality retail in the right amount and location.

NIMBY supporters also attest to preventing urban sprawl with their efforts, but their protest can actually accelerate sprawl. A key to smart growth and preventing urban sprawl is a more efficient use of existing land in the developed portions of cities. By opposing the reuse and redevelopment of land appropriately situated for a project, residents will be forced to travel greater distances to shop. This places a disproportionate burden on those segments of communities that are less mobile and rely more heavily on transit.


Dealing with NIMBY neighbors means more than just reacting when residents start protesting. It means planning ahead to anticipate and avoid community opposition, and actively recruiting and mobilizing citizens in support of the project. A proactive and well-planned community outreach plan can help developers build a retail center project without traditional NIMBY opposition.

Haase is vice president of development for Sudberry Properties, a San Diego-based real estate development and asset management firm. More information about the company is available at www.sudberryproperties.com.>

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