Solid Waste & Recycling


How to Survive Community Opposition

Eight steps to move projects forward in a politically savvy society

Eight steps to move projects forward in a politically savvy society

No matter where in Canada an industrial or municipal proponent seeks to develop or expand a project, they’re likely to encounter not only angry neighbors, but determined, politically-sophisticated activists, who know when and how to flex their political muscle. This is as true of relatively benign projects like a new supermarket as it is of more controversial ones like landfills or waste thermal treatment plants.

Land use permitting processes are no longer simple administrative procedures, but have instead morphed into political campaigns, with all the strategy and tactical maneuvering of a hard-fought election. An operator or developer who steps into this maelstrom without doing their homework is likely to get an unpleasant surprise.

In the past, residents were usually far away from any landfill development or expansion, and job creation was viewed as good for the community, for the economy, and for working people. Even if there was some opposition, an explanation of the need and economic benefits usually won the day. Besides, the facility was at the edge of town, and wouldn’t bother anybody.

But the modern homeowner’s well-developed sense of entitlement and empowerment has redefined the rules. Families want to live in a quiet, private piece of earth, free of anything that makes noise, creates traffic, generates odors, or ruins their view. Never mind that the solid waste generated by these citizens (and the businesses that employ them) must go somewhere for responsible disposal. Never mind that modern technology and procedures protect the environment. Ignore the fact that solid waste and recycling facilities create jobs, pay taxes and help build the economy. Disregard the history that landfills, once located far from the center of town, are now victims of suburban sprawl. They find themselves surrounded and besieged by residential and commercial development, whose occupants loudly complain about truck traffic and raise (often unfounded) environmental issues.

The waste management industry is not alone in facing NIMBY opposition — not by a long shot. But today, something new has been added to the old playbook: sophisticated political campaign strategies that forces public officials to risk their offices at every vote.

More than two decades in overcoming opposition and permitting controversial projects have taught us that all politics is local, and all site fights are political. Obtaining local permits in the face of opposition requires the strategy and tactics of a political campaign on the developer’s side, to match those the opposition will use.

To succeed, a proponent must design and implement a careful political campaign and action plan to communicate with and convince elected officials. He or she must neutralize the opposition, organize supporters, and generate favorable public opinion pressure on public officials.

Planning for the campaign needs to start months before there is any whisper of the project. If word gets out before the campaign is ready, the operator loses control of the message, and the opposition will define the issues: the project will stand for trash and trucks, not jobs and taxes.

We’ve found these elements essential to campaign management:

1. Research

After finding a proper site, the operator should invest in a political and community opinion audit. This means researching local newspapers to see how other recent project proposals have been treated and interviewing opinion leaders in the community about development in general and about the potential site in particular.

A telephone poll can then be conducted to determine how the general public and individual political constituencies feel about the project, and to test arguments to persuade opponents to soften their stance.

2. Neighborhood and public official consultations

After completing the early research, the proponent should take the idea to local elected government officials and community leaders. The proponent should be prepared to talk in general terms, and be ready to have the proposal criticized.

He or she should demonstrate an interest in working with municipal professionals, neighbors and different interest groups in the community. Making these key constituencies feel they are an important part of the process and are working with the developer can prevent an opposition movement from ever coalescing.

3. Press announcements

Once officials and neighbors are informed, the proponent should put together a press announcement that includes a general description, a list of project benefits, and an understanding of potential problems and what can be done to resolve them. This is also an excellent opportunity to include positive materials on the proponent and the need for landfill development.

4. Neighborhood involvement

Proponents should implement door-to-door outreach in the neighborhood; soliciting comments, sharing ideas, and making residents feel they are involved. Ignoring the neighbors is a sure way to engender opposition.

In neighborhood outreach meetings, the proponent must be relentlessly reasonable. Listen respectfully to residents’ concerns, try to find solutions to problems, and work to get the community invested psychologically in the project.

Although mass neighbor meetings may seem like a way to save time, large gatherings encourage boisterous opponents to feed upon one another’s hostility, and intimidate potential supporters into silence. Small, intimate gatherings of two or three families at one neighbor’s home creates a better forum for constructive conversations.

5. Communications materials

In the era of sophisticated opposition, the proponent of even the most benign project must assume that opponents will start a petition drive, write letters to the editor, call public officials, and organize opponents into a citizens’ committee.

These opponents will create specious arguments and exaggerate facts to oppose the project, and pressure public officials to take an opposition stand. But they will also raise valid questions about traffic, safety and environmental impacts.

To handle both situations effectively, the proponent needs to prepare in advance materials that acknowledge and answer legitimate concerns and questions, correct misconceptions, deflect criticism, and communicate in a strong and forthright manner the positive elements and benefits of the project.

6. Building support

Opponents to a project are generally motivated without encouragement. But building support for a project is hard work.

Politicians are usually swayed by the side that has the most signatures or the most people at the public meeting, so it’s critical to show community support for the project. The key obstacle is that people who favor the project are usually less emotionally involved than opponents — they just don’t get excited the way opponents do. So without great effort, supporters can’t be counted on to show up at meetings, speak in favor, write letters or sign petitions.

The proponent needs to organize early — before the opposition is awake — to effectively avoid being overwhelmed.

7. Public meetings

Each public meeting before local government agencies is an opportunity to demonstrate community feeling for or against a proposed project. Whether they occur before elected councils or appointed boards, these are political events where votes are swayed by public opinion. The operator can be sure that project opponents will pack the hall, and will try to shoot the project down. Preparation is therefore critical.

The proponent should look upon these public meetings as more than just an opportunity for the lawyer or consultant to make a formal presentation. The astute proponent will orchestrate public meetings into staged political events, including strategic placement

of supporters, signs and stickers, scripted speakers reinforcing key project benefits, public reading of letters from important supporters, presentation of petition sheets, and a strategy for identifying and convincing the attending media reporters to produce a favorable story.

8. Positioning strategy

Throughout the project, the strategic communications goals must be for the operator to (i) appear open and flexible, (ii) seem rea- sonable and prepared to compromise (especially when compared to the most strident opponents), and (iii) be honest and concerned.

Be conversational, not confrontational. Don’t lose your temper. Don’t allow opponents to goad you into saying things you’ll regret. Keep a cool head. Stay focused. Be relentlessly reasonable, respectful, and attentive to residents’ concerns.

Since the 1960s, home ownership in Canada has increasingly included a sense of entitlement and empowerment that began as a sense of community, but has morphed into a sense of control. The burgeoning trend toward sophisticated grassroots political opposition that ignores property owner rights and kills projects, regardless of their benefits to the community and its people, will only get worse.

Paul Devlin is Vice President of International Development for The Saint Consulting Group in Toronto, Ontario. Contact Paul at

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