Public Lands:

Land use consulting group head explains increase in Americans' support for power plants

Each year, the Saint Consulting Group, a land use political consultancy company, conducts a survey of Americans to track land use trends. During today's OnPoint Patrick Fox, president of the Saint Consulting Group, discusses this year's findings and explains why he believes the number of Americans in support of power plants is on the rise. He also comments on whether or not Americans know enough about health, safety and environment issues associated with certain projects to make informed decisions.

Transcript

Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Patrick Fox, president of the Saint Consulting Group. Patrick, thanks for coming on the show.

Patrick Fox: Thank you for inviting me.

Monica Trauzzi: Patrick, your company puts out the Saint Index annually to track the politics of land use, essentially. Explain for our viewers how you come to your findings, who you talk to to get to these results, and what the main headline of this year's index is.

Patrick Fox: Sure. It's an international survey. We do the U.S., a thousand respondents in the U.S., across the country. We also do it across the U.K. and Canada at various times throughout the year. The goal is to quantify opposition to development, who opposes, why they oppose, and put together some demographics that our clients can use when trying to gain support for their projects.

Monica Trauzzi: And your clients are?

Patrick Fox: Clients are power plants, aggregate quarries, malls, supermarkets, anything that's large, controversial, and that requires local land-use approvals.

Monica Trauzzi: And so this year's headline?

Patrick Fox: This year's headline is it's still tough out there. Seventy-eight percent of Americans are saying no to any new development in their community. Let's stop building now. They're saying their community is either fine the way it is or is overdeveloped already. Now, the good news for power plants is that opposition has dropped considerably. Seventy-five percent of Americans last year were opposed to any power plants being built in their communities, and that's down to 57 percent, which is just an amazing drop.

Monica Trauzzi: And why do you think that happened?

Patrick Fox: I think that there's a general understanding that we need more power plants and they've got to go somewhere. One of the interesting things about our survey is we do ask not how do you feel about power plants, but this how do you feel about a power plant if I'm going to put it in your community? And even with the question personalized in that way, we still have 57 percent of Americans saying, only 57 percent of Americans saying they're opposed to power plants in their community.

Monica Trauzzi: Only 57 percent, but that's still a majority of Americans this who don't support power plants being built in their areas. Did you notice regional differences in the U.S. of who would be in support of this and who wouldn't be?

Patrick Fox: It's a little tougher in New England. It's a little tougher in the mid-Atlantic region, but other than that it's pretty much the same across the country. Now, I say only 57 percent opposition, but you have to realize that power plants are not the most opposed use. Casinos, landfills, aggregate quarries, Wal-Marts, and even malls are more opposed right now in the U.S. than a power plant, which I think is amazing.

Monica Trauzzi: Do you think Americans are equipped with enough information to make educated assessments and informed assessments of the questions that you're asking them in this index?

Patrick Fox: Well, it's based on whatever they happen to know right now and we personalize it, because we say it's going to be in your community. And Americans are twice as likely to oppose something as to support it. It's about fear of the unknown, fear about how it's going to impact them in their community and their real estate values. So these numbers are probably worst-case scenarios.

Monica Trauzzi: Who are the bananas and cave people, and how do they play into these findings?

Patrick Fox: Build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything. And the cave one is ...

Monica Trauzzi: Citizens Against ...

Patrick Fox: Citizens Against Virtually Everything, that's right. And you are going to have intractable opposition no matter what you do. We work for supermarket companies, at times supermarkets across the country have 75 percent support for new grocery stores. But every time they have a hearing the hearing room is packed with residents saying we don't want this built. There's no one in the room saying they support it. And that's even worse when it comes to power plants. They're still going to have a roomful of angry citizens, a roomful of constituents asking elected officials not to allow this to happen. And in the end it's all about the politics. So it's not about the project. It's about the politics. Good projects in all of these industries are being rejected every day and it's because you've got to have support in the room. You've got to show elected officials that it is not political suicide to vote for your project. There's going to be opposition to every project, but developers have got to make sure there's support in that room.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, and speaking of politics, wind farms are the most preferred power plant, but what we're seeing in Nantucket Sound is that a lot of people that live in that area don't want a wind farm built in their backyard. So how big of a deal is the NIMBY issue?

Patrick Fox: It's huge and it's changing the way development happens in every industry. You know, it used to be that elected officials wanted to be able to say I brought in economic development. I generated tax dollars. I generated new jobs. They don't want to say that any more. What they want to do now is stand with the opponents who are the most passionate and committed people involved in this process. You know, whether it's a power plant or a grocery store, those supporters are not coming to the hearing. And when you have committed, angry, passionate constituents asking elected officials to vote against the project it is far more politically expedient for him or her to stand with them. So it's changed the political landscape in development. And developers who used to, and we're still seeing this in some places, developers who want to sneak their projects through, who want to arrange it so their hearing happens in July or August or through the holidays. Or they want to keep everything very quiet, do the bare minimum in terms of community outreach, try to keep things quiet and hope that it just goes through. It's not working anymore, because two or 300 angry residents show up and elected and appointed officials are not going to commit political suicide for a developer's project.

Monica Trauzzi: Well, is it just political suicide or I mean the elected officials are there to represent the citizens of that area and if they don't want it why should they be building there?

Patrick Fox: Well, the problem with the NIMBYs is they are a very loud minority in most cases. There are bad projects and sometimes you have the entire community against them, but in many cases you've got good developers with good projects who have worked hard on community outreach efforts, community mitigation, and benefits packages so that the project will benefit and enhance the community. But 20 angry residents who happen to abut the project can show up and derail the process because they're the only ones in the room. So the challenge is how do you educate people and identify supporters of your project and get them in the room? That's the key to winning these fights and that's what developers have to do today. It's about the politics. It's about the numbers, and you've got to make sure that when an elected official is looking out at a public hearing that they see some support. It can't be all opposition.

Monica Trauzzi: So what does this mean for legislation? How should policymakers be looking at these findings and understanding them and applying them to what they do?

Patrick Fox: Well, it's a systemic issue. I don't know if we need to change the legislation surrounding how this takes place. If the developers can learn how to grapple with the new realities of the system, I don't think we necessarily need to change the process. They've got to get out there early. They've got to meet with residents and abutters before they announce their project. They need to understand the needs of the community. What do they care about? What do they want? In the case of a power plant or with casinos, landfills, quarries, industries where there is more opposition than support originally, you need to find ways to leverage support in the community. What can you bring to that community that's going to make you a good neighbor, that's going to benefit and enhance the community and bring support to your project? Because there aren't people coming out to say I want to live near the power plant or I want to live near the quarry. You've got to find another way to make that a project that's going to benefit and enhance the community.

Monica Trauzzi: And are people concerned about the health issues that might be connected to the construction of these projects?

Patrick Fox: Well, especially with power plants, 32 percent of the people who opposed power plants say they did so because of the environment, 30 percent due to health and medical reasons, 12 percent public safety, which may be the same as health and medical, and 9 percent that thought it was going to change the character of their community. So that's about education and outreach.

Monica Trauzzi: We'll end it right there.

Patrick Fox: OK.

Monica Trauzzi: Thanks for coming on the show.

Patrick Fox: Thank you for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

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