Do You Have Control Over NIMBYism?

What steps can you take when your biomass project faces opposition?
By Al Maiorino | March 22, 2011

Picture this. The chief executive officer 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 chief executive officer realizes that opposition is indeed a roadblock 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 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 often they are simply “in it to win it.” They oppose just for the sake of making a statement. The size of 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.

Fight Misinformation

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 the facts up front.

It is necessary to look for local support and build allies in order to form a supporter coalition. First and foremost, 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 conducting a poll or establishing 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 any changes in the local opinion. One way to do this is through a targeted direct mail and/or advertising campaign. A strong social media campaign may also work as a modern tool to spread your message, reach out to the community and provide supporters with a communication outlet. Although many campaigns use modern technology to deliver a message, most grassroots campaigns mainly rely on direct face-to-face interaction between the developers and local communities.

Reach Out to Supporters

Now that you have distinguished supporters from opposition, the next step is to reach out to third-party groups that support your development. These could be anything from small businesses to a local decision maker. Those companies or groups with whom you have had a positive relationship 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. Experience shows, however, that hiring a specialized firm will provide you with the necessary tactics to ensure support for your development. More often than not, the public relations firm you are looking to employ may not be equipped with the necessary tools and experience to tackle the NIMBY issue. Public relations specialists may help you develop your brand, create your image, and give your company the publicity it needs. Those benefits may be useful in some instances, but experience in grassroots campaigns is necessary to properly assess your project and analyze your NIMBY issues. Your best bet is to consult a public affairs organization. Professionals, trained in grassroots, 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 chief executive officer 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.

Author: Al Maiorino
President, Public Strategy Group Inc.
(617) 859-3006