Industry Grows to Get Developments OK’d

 

Builders hire PR to fight resistance

                        By Jack Hagel, News & Observer Staff Writer

 

Unscrupulous developer breezes into town angling to build shopping center on sentimental piece of dirt.  Town catches wind of scheme and vows – after fist-in-the-air, not-gonna-stand-for-it speeches at city hall – to foil plans and send developer back on the bulldozer he rode in on.

 

The plot may sound like a listing for a late-night basic-cable movie.   But it plays out in neighborhoods from Chatham County, where residents fought the 1,600-acre Briar Chapel development, to California.

 

In the past, developers say, unpopular projects were approved on their merits or with some politicking.  But more developers are hiring polished consultants and pollsters to avoid guff from the not-in-my-backyard crowd – NIMBYs, as followers of land-use disputes call them.

 

“Nobody wants protesters or neighbors up in arms,” said Caryn Pawliger, a senior director at the Public Affairs Council in Washington.  “Often you need to turn to a resource that can assist you.”

 

Consultants at Campaign Connections of Raleigh, for instance, raked in about $500,000 last year from real estate-related clients – almost double what it was doing three years ago, said Brad Crone, the firm’s president.

 

Meanwhile, at least two local consultants have entered this specialized corner of the public-affairs world, offering to act as liaisons between developers, activists, politicians and planners.

 

“Companies and development groups are getting much more sophisticated about understanding that they’ve got to garner public support,” said James T. Kitchens, a Maitland, FL, consultant who advises the Home Depot and other companies on land-use issues.  “If not, the political entities will respond to voters.”

 

Kitchens, who has conducted opinion polls for political candidates since the late 1970s, said his company has gotten more business from clients with development interests.  The Kitchens Group made about $50,000 from real estate-related consulting in 1995.  Now the niche brings about $400,000 a year, in part because of the firm’s “Development Resistance Index.”

 

The index, based on a survey of resident sentiment on the economy and the benefits and detriments of development near their neighborhoods, lets companies know where they’ll face the most opposition.

 


”There’s increasing awareness of the stupendous costs and risks associated with political delay related to NIMBYism,” said Debra Stein, president of GCA Strategies, a San Francisco firm that specializes in land-use issues.  “More real estate professionals are recognizing this is a serious problem but a solvable problem.”

 

The Internet has enabled more community involvement in the process, developers and planners say.  Site plans and other public development records are easier to obtain.  And e-mail has enabled neighborhood activists to organize more effectively.

 

Now developers often go often go out of their way to meet with neighbors before submitting plans for controversial projects.  They often send engineers or lawyers to answer neighbors’ questions.

 

But developers are recognizing a need for someone who can better explain their plans, said Dan Miller, director of business development at Research Triangle Park land development firm The John R. McAdams Co.

 

“ A legal guy is just going to say, “Well, we can do it and you’re (out of luck),” and a technical person is just going to give you the technical answers,” he said.  “So the PR person would have a specific skill, which is what these developers would be needing, which is “Get these people off my back.”

 

Add neighborhood meetings to press management and keeping tabs on regulatory issues, and the development game becomes a fulltime image effort.

 

“Sometimes you’ll have a community that’s lock step opposed to you,” said Crone of Campaign Connections, which consults for the parent company of Lowe’s Home Improvement.  “Sometimes you’re going to have wiggle room.” 

 

So consultants help developers monitor public opinion and sell the benefits of projects using traffic, demographic and economic impact studies.

 

Newland Communities, for instance, hired consultants about the time its Briar Chapel proposal was unanimously rejected by Chatham County officials in 2002.

 

“The opposition had a loud voice,” said Mitch Barron, vice president of operations for Newland’s Raleigh division.

 

“I think it’s not so much about the opposition as it is about garnering support.”

 

Consultants for the California developer called on Chris Sinclair, a local political operative specializing in developers’ interests, to muster a platoon of supporters at county meetings – a presence that Sinclair and Newland say helped the project win approval.

 

Newland worked with neighbors, eventually downsizing the project by 15 percent to about 2,400 single-family homes, townhouses and apartments, and from nearly 840,000 square feet to about 500,000 square feet of shops and offices.  It was approved in February.  Construction is to begin in the fall.

 

Sinclair and others say there has been enough of an increase in project opposition to sustain firms specializing in development related consulting. That’s why he founded Public Solutions in Raleigh this year.

 

“It’s more than just a press release and managing the media,” he said.  “It’s understanding the public opinion environment and understanding the nuances of growth politics and putting that all in a box for someone and laying out a strategy for them – much like getting your message out if you were running for office.”