June 29, 2006

Smooth the development process by building trust

  • A do-it-yourself procedure for improving stakeholder relationships puts the neighbors in charge.
    Smarter Land Use Project

    Photo by Karl Kehde
    Building a model together using an aerial photo builds trust between neighbors, planners and the developer.

    We all want to live in communities that become better with every new development. Yet many people are dissatisfied with the way their communities are evolving.

    Distrust between developers, neighborhood groups and city officials during planning and permitting seems to exert a profound influence on land-use decisions. Relying on regulations that protect the rights of the parties, land-development design has become an adversarial process.

    From experience gained in hundreds of combined stakeholder meetings, we discovered an effective, do-it-yourself procedure for improving stakeholder relationships. This procedure doesn’t require any changes to the legal and administrative structures that control land development. Rather, it adds a voluntary but powerful technique that helps existing administrative procedures work more smoothly and productively. Arguing and lawsuits decrease, and projects and their surrounding neighborhoods improve.

    A team of adversaries?

    People usually prefer collaboration to conflict. Ironically, we find support for trust building in our perceived adversaries. I have found that almost everyone -- developers, city planners and neighbors -- is interested in working together if the other one will. Think about your biggest adversary in land-use. Would you try working with them, if they would try working with you? It’s a matter of setting up a forum where you can meet informally and take the necessary steps to start collaborating.

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    All that is needed is a step-by-step procedure, a large (3-by-5-foot) aerial photo that includes the surrounding neighborhood, and project modeling materials. The collaborative procedure allows a cohesive team to form for the sole purpose of integrating a proposed project into the surrounding neighborhood. This team designs the project to include community-enhancing features that benefit both the project and the community.

    Almost magically, the unsustainable energy of confrontation can convert to creative collaboration. People who had been arguing and suing each other begin to work together.

    How one town did it

    In one New Jersey town, the stakeholder team revised a conventional 12-lot subdivision to include a walkway through the project connecting two adjacent neighborhoods. They also created a tot-lot park along the walkway and recommended one less building lot and that the new road be narrower to spare a hemlock grove which would become part of the park.

    Here is a quote from the developer:

    “We had been locked in a difficult, disjointed situation with a lot of misunderstanding and no spirit of cooperation. With this procedure we found ourselves sitting in someone’s dining room discussing the issues calmly. It was a whole other ballpark! In a private setting with a relaxed atmosphere, they can see who you are, you see who your neighbors are, and you address each other’s concerns.

    “It’s much easier and much more fruitful. You get a better understanding between neighbor and developer. No question about it! Now we are on excellent terms! There is faith and trust on both sides.

    “The greatest thing is when you sit down with the neighbors, you get a feeling about those people who will be participating in the public meeting. For us, we actually saved some money because of what they wanted to see developed there. We don’t have to do the wider roads mandated by the municipality. We have smaller roads and a little park and sidewalks. They came up with some good suggestions that are saleable items. So, we learned a lot, and we benefited.”

    The project integration team

    The best way to begin the trust building is for the neighbors of a proposed project to invite the developer and city planner to join their project integration team. This makes productive use of neighborhood energy and gives the neighbors ownership in both the collaborative planning process and the project plan itself.

    The proposed project is then collaboratively planned to include such community-enhancing features as recreational facilities, public greens, affordable housing, wildlife sanctuaries, and walkways that directly connect homes to important destinations. These features promote interaction and community spirit. The team achieves a level of creative problem solving that individuals alone can’t achieve.

    Here is how it unfolded in the previous example in the words of one of the neighbors:

    “We had been battling for almost two years. There was a developer, two sets of neighbors and the planning board. Everybody was pretty frustrated. When we started this procedure, no one was really talking to each other or knowing what to do. The big issue was that no one was talking to anybody!

    “I mean feelings were that hurt! The planning board was in the hot seat. We said, ‘Well, it’s our community; what if we do it this way!’ We met at a neighbor’s house with neighbors from both sides of the development and the developer. In six months it was resolved! We relocated buildings and put in lots of walking paths and green space. It’s going to enhance the whole community; it’s going to be a really pretty development, and it’s going to work!”

    A do-it-yourself approach

    The neighbors host the trust-building procedure. They arrange meeting space, refreshments, get people to the meetings, and distribute the meeting agenda and other materials. The Smarter Land Use guidebook serves as a team coach -- with tips to help beginners play well. No outside facilitator is needed. Meeting facilitator and note-taker roles are rotated among the participants.

    The team is self-owned and self-governed and may dissolve itself at any time. Membership is inclusive, meaning that anyone who wants to participate is always welcome. Participation is voluntary and has no effect on the developer’s legal rights to use the property.

    When the parties work together to build a scale model of the proposed project directly on an aerial photo, it is like hitting a home run with collaboration. Because it is an aerial photo that includes the surrounding neighborhood, everyone has confidence in its accuracy.

    The better people get along, the better they plan the project. The team gets credit for designing a community-enhancing project, and shares with the planning board the credit for an efficient and enjoyable permitting process. Stakeholders report that it is very refreshing to work with new friends who had been perceived as adversaries.

    Long-lasting, beneficial relationships can develop. Municipal officials, neighbors of proposed projects, environmentalists and developers often find a sense of satisfaction about their community and a feeling of security that comes from knowing each other as members of one building team.

    Karl Kehde, director of the Smarter Land Use Project, served eight years on his town planning board and five years working on New Jersey’s State Development Plan. He also participated in more than 500 combined stakeholder meetings on 48 proposed projects across the United States.

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