Powering Past ‘NIMBY’ – Identify Opponents and Allies Before they Identify Themselves

Today is a great day for your small renewable power start-up. You started with a passion for clean technology, concern for the environment, and an idea. That idea became a business plan and in turn an artist’s rendering. You located a prime property, found the best materials, and now your financing has come through. Your idea is a real business.

You want to shout it from the rooftops: tell your friends, tell your family, tell your other investors, vendors, and utility partners. But, what about the guy next door? The guy who will watch your contractors (and all their trucks) arrive and begin to dig, pour concrete, erect a monopole, raise the blades and set your turbine spinning. The guy who is concerned about what your pole will mean to his home’s value, the quiet tranquility of his morning walks, the light that he gets in his favorite reading chair, and a host of other things: after all, he has never been neighbor to a wind turbine before.

Nah…you’ll wait on telling him. Well, there is your first mistake. ::continue::

Early Identification is the Foundation of Your Community Engagement Strategy

What have you got to gain by holding off on telling your new “neighbor?” Too often, project developers make the mistake of waiting for the time to be “right” before engaging project opponents. More on engagement is coming in tomorrow’s installment, but early identification is critical to how you begin and manage the whole community process.

You have to know who is out there. Finding that out might tip your hand, but the fact is that you are not going to sneak your project by anyone anyway. Trying to keep the lid on for too long can be just as costly as taking it off to soon, because it creates mistrust and creates an atmosphere of conflict.

De Facto Opponents

The goal of your community engagement process will be to turn potential opponents into allies. Nonetheless, while it is pretty easy to guess at who might be opposed, you have to do the work. Going into any permitting or other post-conception phase of your project without having as much information as you can get on “where the bodies are buried” would be foolish and will be cos

– Start with public records and determine who lives nearby. Do they own the property? If not, who does? Also, it may seem obvious to some, but make sure you know the local political players. Whose district are you about to dig up? Are the abutters his most loyal supporters? Are they on the state party committee? Are they voters at all? All of that data is available in the public record.

– Next, take some time to reconnoiter local boards, committees, municipal bodies and other stakeholders. Who is on the conservation commission in town? Are there any particularly active or well-connected civic groups or business associations? How has the town responded to development proposals in the past?

Armed with this info, you can begin to formulate a communications and engagement strategy. One size does not fit all, so you need to have the whole lay of the land.

Broaden the Discussion

Too often, project proponents are focused on the downside of community engagement, don’t forget the flip side.

– Who will build your project? Labor is often among the most well-organized and influential groups in community and political debate at the community level. We will touch on how you can leverage their support on Wednesday in our section on “third voice integration.”

– Along the same lines, look for partners among burgeoning grassroots green groups. Across the country, climate action groups are making themselves and their key issue (climate change) more relevant in local political discourse.

Building the Foundation

Identification is grunt work, but it creates the fundamental asset on which you will build the rest of your strategy: your database. When you set out to communicate, it may be on a mass-scale or it may be targeted, but you’ll need to know who you are (and are not) talking to as you move forward.

As above, you are NOT going to sneak past unnoticed. So, if you realize that the local gadfly has not weighed in on your project, you may want to do yourself a favor and make the first move, before you find a legal demand letter in your mailbox and the process threatens to turn confrontational, time-consuming and expensive.

The trick — as a former US Defense official might have said — is to understand your known-knowns and try to minimize your unknown-unknowns. Identification is critical.

Now that you have your list, check back tomorrow to find out how and when to engage them. HINT: At the public hearing is the WRONG time!

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An award-winning energy and environmental law scholar, Joe combines professional experience in utility sector government, community and regulatory affairs with a background in security clearance-required military intelligence and offers unique insight and complex analysis of energy infrastructure, technology and policy in national security, international trade and climate change and carbon-restrained economics contexts.Joe was awarded the Suffolk University Jurisprudence Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Environmental Law for his work analyzing the pathways and obstacles to adoption of renewable energy in state, federal and international energy policy. ”Home Rule on the Ropes,” his paper on renewable energy zoning in Massachusetts is on SSRN’s Top Ten lists for the Journal on Urban Economics & Public Policy and the Journal of Public Policy. And, he was awarded Suffolk Law’s 2009-2010 McCormack Scholarhship in recognition of excellence in research and writing, including his paper – ”Coming up ACES?” – on the NAFTA and WTO implications of the national renewable portfolio standard limitation proposed in the Waxman-Markey energy bill.A research assistant on Westlaw’s definitive energy regulation reference, ”The Law of Independent Power,” Joe is also a former state legislative aide and US Army linguist who tested at professional profiency in Russian and Spanish.His writing on law, politics and policy is also featured on the blog at www.RedGreenandBlue.org and www.CleanTechies.com.Joe lives in Boston with his wife and two young children. In his spare time, Joe is the founder and curator of the corporate social responsibility network on LinkedIn, and is an avid runner who recently posted a personal best in in the Walt Disney World Half-Marathon in Orlando.

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