MYTH #7: Making major concessions is the best way to win public support.

Rather than rush into providing expensive community benefits, first evaluate why citizens are opposing your project, and determine if concessions are really necessary. As noted previously, those motivated by ideological conflicts typically see negotiations as morally unacceptable and may be averse to making concessions of any sort. Similarly, there is no need to make costly concessions to those who oppose projects because of lack of information or lack of involvement. Instead, provide information to the former and engage the latter.

Concessions are only appropriate when citizens oppose your project simply because it conflicts with their own interests. If efforts to persuade them that your proposal does not harm them prove futile, then it may be time to consider concessions. These can consist of either project modifications to remove the real or perceived threat to neighbors’ interests (dropping building heights by 12 feet to preserve views), a reduction in impacts through mitigation measures (a landscaped berm to reduce traffic noise), or counter-balancing benefits. Consider offering these benefits if modifications are not feasible or will not adequately address citizen concerns. Common benefits include more public open space, traffic improvements, or community facilities.

Among the biggest mistakes developers make is to agree to expensive concessions which don’t materially increase the level of support, or are unlikely to result in entitlements. When considerable money is at stake, it’s crucial to undertake polling to avoid making ineffective concessions.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. For example, the swing vote on the County Board of Supervisors may strongly hint that her vote will depend on improvements to community tennis courts. That concession, if feasible, suddenly may vault to the top of your list of community benefits regardless of public opinion. Similarly, if the most influential neighborhood group leaders opposing your development indicate wider setbacks will change their minds, by all means explore this approach – even if it is far down the list of priorities for most citizens.

Occasionally, a mitigation measure might be useful to achieve another key purpose – mobilizing a potential ally. For example, if reserving land for soccer fields as part of a housing development will generate visible support from dozens of soccer parents and coaches, this concession may be a powerful tool to win the endorsement of local decision-makers. Even so, do the homework necessary to ensure that your largess would yield such an impact before you commit to such a community investment.

To summarize, utilize a focused approach and marshal your communications resources effectively by targeting your audience. Use the bulk of your outreach resources to build a base constituency, and first pursue likely supporters before talking to likely opponents. While City Hall’s response is critical, ignore the rest of the community at your peril. When you talk with neighbors, be sure to listen to what they say. And in most cases, don’t ignore opposition arguments; rather, use them to your advantage.

One size does not fit all, so be alert to differences in motivation among community leaders and groups. Target project messages and means of communication based on potential causes of opposition. Finally, make concessions strategically to save money as well as help win entitlements.

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