NIMBY and building local political support

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Courtesy of Waste Advantage Magazine

“Proposed Landfill Project Derailed”; “Landfill Expansion Turned Down”; “Price Break Denied For Haulers Dumping Local Trash”; “Recycling Proposal Unanimously Rejected.” These are just some of the headlines the solid waste industry has seen recently. Across the country and abroad, well-planned waste projects are being denied at an alarming rate. Denied at a time when the local economies need the tax revenue and host fees the most. Denied at a time when competition should be welcomed. Denied at a time when the technological and engineering advances have reduced negative impacts more than ever before. So why are solid waste projects and proposals failing?

Managing Local Politics
In explaining to his son why he lost his race for city council in 1936, Thomas Phillip O’Neill noted his son’s poor performance in his home district and explained, “all politics is local,” coining a phrase for which Tip O’Neill would forever be synonymous.

Nearly 2,500 years earlier, another statesman made an observation that is useful in today’s political environment. The oracle Pericles stated, “If you don’t find politics, politics will find you.” In politics, there is nothing more local than land-use, and there is no land-use sector more opposed than landfills and the solid waste industry. In fact, the term “NIMBY” (Not In My Back Yard) was popularized in a 1980 news article concerning a proposed hazardous waste landfill.

Today, both statements help us understand the opposition to the solid waste industry. The permitting process for landfills and solid waste facilities is becoming much more contentious. Local politics are influencing the permitting and entitlement process, whether you seek to manage it proactively, or find yourself reacting to it.

The goal of this article is help identify ways to foster and communicate a mutually beneficial relationship with the communities in which you work or seek to expand into. If the opposition to your project or contract is unwilling to work with you, hopefully, some useful ways to overcome the opposition and build support for your controversial project will be provided.

Political Due Diligence A large waste management client once told me that six out of seven Greenfield landfill proposals in the South will fail. While that one newly permitted Greenfield landfill will surely prove profitable, companies are spending significant resources on land acquisition/options, engineering and legal fees. The carry costs for the other six failed landfills can be substantial.

Landfill developers can save money by conducting a “political due-diligence” on a potential site prior to undertaking substantial engineering and site/design work. In seeking a new or expanded facility, an applicant may conduct a market study or a site feasibility study before moving forward with an application. Yet many companies fail to consider the political landscape of the area in which they wish to serve.

Just as a company will study the market factors affecting the price of hauling and disposal, or the soil quality of the site, they should also learn the political landscape before moving forward with an application. When were the current members of the Commission elected (ie., who can afford to make a tough decision, and who has a tough re-election and cannot support you)? What do you know about the elected officials? What does the zoning look like? What about the solid waste plan for the municipality? Have there been other solid waste plans before this body? What other municipal issues may indirectly affect your application? What budgetary issues may your project solve? What other stakeholders may oppose or support you? Who else influences local politics? By researching the political landscape prior to undertaking the application for a new site, developers may save substantial costs and abandon the site, or may identify a clear way to make their case for the project.

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