By Christine Hughes for ELCR
So, you find yourself in opposition to a proposed rezoning or a development project. Now what?
First things first, understand what is being proposed. Learn everything you can about a proposed rezoning or development project.
A key consideration when organizing to oppose a project: the difference between rezoning and by-right development. In many places, a property owner or developer may come forward with a development plan that meets all of the established criteria for development under the current zoning, which is considered a by-right development. In this case, there may not be a means for formal opposition or input into the process. Sometimes, you may only know development is planned in an area because you notice survey stakes on the property or see some trees being cleared. Call your local planning office with the property address and ask what plans have been submitted, if there will be any opportunities for public input, and what the next steps will be. Opposing a by-right development will be more challenging than opposing a rezoning, where there is typically an established, formal process for public input, and you will have to create your own opportunities to make your voice heard.
Now that you have determined whether the development is a by-right project or a rezoning, and you know what is being proposed and find yourself opposed to the project, it is time to activate your community network. Contact affected neighborhood groups, property owners associations, interest groups, clubs, and others who have an interest in opposing the rezoning or development project. Use your email and listserv networks, social media, flyers, word of mouth, go door to door, set up a website, host a meeting, and use any other communication tools available to share information. Be sure to include your elected officials in your communications and ask them to attend your meetings.
Once you have determined how and when public input can be offered, nominate one or two spokespersons to speak on behalf of the opposition, ideally someone with experience in real estate or development. If there are no formal community meetings, public hearings, or other organized opportunities to speak out, create your own. Circulate a petition, on line and on paper. Share you message on social media, with local news stations, your local newspapers, and with all of your networks. Email, call, and visit your elected officials. Find out if there is a local talk radio show where you might be able to express your opposition. You might even considered posting signs making your opposition highly visible (checking first to be sure you will not be in violation of the local sign codes!). Find out how to get on the next agenda for your governing board and share your opposition, even if the item is not scheduled for consideration. Whenever your opposition group shows up for public meetings, be sure that everyone wears a shirt of the same color, which will add a visual impact, even if not everyone will be speaking.
Take advantage of your social media tools. You can blog, tweet, post pictures on Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, and the many other social media tools available. Be sure to use appropriate hashtags, which can help generate interest in and attention to your cause.
State the facts.
When you have a chance to be heard, no matter the medium, be sure to include facts. While many people may relate to a nostalgic story or an emotional please, it might not be moving enough to stir a city council into voting down a rezoning request. And if you live in a rapidly developing and changing area, your local elected officials may hear a lot of opposition to every rezoning request that all begins to sound like generalized fear and dislike of change. Do not allow your opposition to come across as NIMBYism. Do not “trash talk” the developer, the project, or your elected officials. These techniques can cause decision makers to turn a deaf ear to your concerns. Instead, focus on the factual impacts that the change would bring to your community. Are there stormwater impacts that would be realized? What about impacts on local school enrollment? Can your fire and police departments provide adequate protection for the proposed development? Is there adequate water and sewer infrastructure available to meet the new demand? Be very careful when talking about traffic and property values as negative impacts of development. While they are common points of opposition, it can be challenging to actually prove negative impacts associated with these topics in particular.
Share these facts at as often as possible: at public meetings, on social media, in an email to your elected officials, in a letter to your local planning staff, and in a letter to the editor.
Prepare to offer alternative actions and ideas.
As you have organized and determined what you do not want to happen, think about what you do want to happen. Where can you find leverage to make other options a reality? Are there policies, long-range or comprehensive plans, or adopted goals for the community that support your goals rather than what has been proposed? Are there special environmental factors to consider? What about historic preservation and cultural resources protection? Are there tax credits or other opportunities to help offset the costs of not developing the land in question? Perhaps you can live with some kind of development, just not to the extent proposed. Find ways to negotiate, offer alternatives, and potentially be a partner, rather than just opposition. If the land up for rezoning is for sale, is your group willing to buy it or find a conservation organization that could buy it? Be willing to come up with solid alternatives that bring a winning outcome to all parties.
Pay attention until the decision is finalized.
Be prepared for a rezoning request to move quickly through the process, and for a by-right development to move even faster. If there a formal vote required, follow the process through the final vote. While a rezoning might go from start to finish in a matter of weeks, there is also the possibility that it could be drawn out for several months or even a year, so watch closely. Even if the request is withdrawn or voted down, watch for it to reappear. Usually a determined developer will bring a defeated project back around again, sometimes with minor changes or under a different name. Keep your network organized and alert for it to come back.
If you find your community faced with a rezoning or development to which you are opposed, learn all that you can about the project, connect with your network and spread the word, learn how, when, and where to speak up, be prepared to discuss facts and to offer alternatives, and engage with decision makers. Follow through until you are sure the issue is settled. And even then, watch for it to come back.