When Neighbors Refuse to Negotiate

Debra Stein and Dr. David Stiebel

Angry neighbors are protesting your development proposal, and city hall directs you to work out differences with project opponents. In the spirit of cooperation, you agree to negotiate with neighbors--even to modify the project, if necessary, to gain public support. But the neighbors refuse to negotiate with you! In fact, they will not even speak to you except to scream that they are going to do everything in their power to stop your project! Have you reached a dead end?

For the creative builder, the answer is a resounding, "no". You can take advantage of proven strategies to win community support even when neighbors refuse to negotiate.

The first step before plunging into negotiations with neighbors is to ask yourself if negotiations are required to obtain project approval. You may be able to quell opposition or satisfy political needs without making concessions.

Public Information
City officials often resent bearing the brunt of citizen anger and confusion over controversial projects. Not surprisingly, they frequently direct project sponsors to enter into negotiations with project opponents in order to respond to community concerns. But when the real basis of citizen outcry is either a lack of clear information about the project or exaggerated fears about project impacts, bilateral negotiations are not the answer. Simply clarifying misconceptions about the project can be much more effective and less costly than making substantive concessions.

To determine whether public information activities alone will reduce community opposition, it is essential to look at the cause of citizen hostility. Would neighbors stop opposing the project if they fully understood its details and impacts? If the answer is "yes," then you face a communications problem that can be solved by implementing a better public information campaign.

Public information materials such as fact sheets, newsletters, videos, and informational presentations can help address community concerns without providing new forums for protest. But be aware that if neighborhood opposition is not caused primarily by a lack of clear communications, disgorging endless messages and information will not reduce opposition and may in fact stir up neighbors who otherwise had no interest in your project. When the developer's public information program goes too far, opponents can use that information to substantiate their own arguments and transform vague concerns into specific fears.

Public Participation
City officials often demand that developers consult with neighbors merely to satisfy the political expectations or legal obligations associated with public involvement requirements. For their part, some developers find it important to maintain a public image of cooperation and open-mindedness. Whatever your motivation, it is the public participation process itself, rather than any successfully negotiated result, that is important. If you make an obvious good faith effort to involve citizens in refining the details of your project, that effort can satisfy political demands even if you fail to reduce opposition or resolve disputes.

To meet political or public relations demands for a legitimate public involvement program, it is important for the developer to make the first move toward citizen participation. A developer who meets with neighbors only after obvious pressure from community groups or city hall not only undermines the impression of a good faith commitment to involve the public but loses the opportunity to direct the role and scope of citizen input.

To determine if public involvement activities alone are sufficient to reduce community opposition, the developer should look once again at the basis for the opposition. Would neighbors stop opposing the project or politicians be more likely to approve the proposal if the public had an opportunity to provide more input, even if the disputes remained unresolved? If the answer is "yes," then you can overcome public opposition by reaching out to citizens and considering their input in formulating the project.

Public participation activities are designed to respond to neighbors' fears that no one is listening to them or cares about their concerns. Including citizens in project definition can reassure residents that they have some control over their own neighborhood's destiny, even if they cannot stop the project outright. Traditional public participation activities include one-on-one interviews, design charettes, small group discussions, and public agency workshops.

The refusal of certain community leaders to participate in public outreach activities may not matter if the citizen participation program involves a group sufficiently representative of the neighborhood. The city, however, may consider the participation process to be a failure unless certain individuals participate in project discussions. If that is true, you must carefully design the public involvement program to attract key community leaders.

Public participation activities should be limited to the narrowest scope necessary to create a credible impression that neighbors have been involved in formulating the development proposal. Sponsoring a public forum that is overly expansive can cause neighbors who otherwise felt powerless to recognize their own importance and ability to participate in and influence land use decisions. And, as with overly extensive public information programs, a public participation program that is not carefully limited can trigger the awareness of neighbors who otherwise would have remained oblivious to or uninterested in the development.

Dispute Resolution
When community opposition cannot be defused through improved communications or more expansive public involvement, then it is time to consider making concessions at the bargaining table. Negotiations are generally required only when disputes over a project must be resolved in advance of project approval. Municipal demands for negotiated settlements usually stem from the city's desire to avoid litigation, delay, unfavorable publicity, or political fallout from angry neighbors. When a project is highly controversial or a public agency is understaffed, a city may insist that you try to expedite the approval process by satisfying opponents before public hearings begin. And as the developer, you naturally would like to resolve disputes in an effort to smooth the permit approval process and avoid costly litigation.

In a perfect world, negotiations flow smoothly to a mutually agreeable solution through the following phases:

  • Step 1. Identify the parties that will participate in the negotiations.
  • Step 2. Secure agreements to negotiate from the affected parties.
  • Step 3. Agree on the forum or negotiation procedure.
  • Step 4. Identify the interests and issues to be resolved.
  • Step 5. Review the facts and constraints.
  • Step 6. Generate alternative solutions.
  • Step 7. Analyze the alternatives.
  • Step 8. Reach consensual agreement.

Unfortunately, developers rarely live in a perfect world. Textbook negotiation strategies often fall apart in the face of intransigent neighborhood opposition. The best-intentioned plans for negotiated settlements frequently fail because neighbors simply refuse to participate in the bargaining process. In some cases, neighbors fear that an agreement to negotiate the details or impacts of a project represents a willingness to let the project as a whole move forward. In other instances, neighbors are afraid to look as though they are "selling out" community interests by sitting down at the bargaining table with the developer. Further, some activists believe that their refusal to negotiate today will not preclude negotiations in the future if their hard-line anti project protests fail. So what can you do when neighbors refuse to negotiate?


Negotiate With Someone Else

The citizens most likely to be identified as the people who should join you at the negotiating table are usually self- appointed neighborhood leaders or representatives of organized community groups. When these neighbors refuse to negotiate, your first step is to identify other neighbors willing to meet with you.

Neighbors who live and work close to a project site generally bear the brunt of a project's impacts and, as a result, are usually the most intractable opponents. When city hall expects you to resolve disputes with nearby neighbors but self-appointed spokespersons refuse to do more than reiterate their unqualified opposition to your project, it is time to find other nearby neighbors willing to represent their own or their neighbors' interests at the bargaining table. Even though these other neighbors may have little independent political strength, you can empower the more reasonable citizens by involving them in the negotiation process and thereby dilute the power of aggressively hostile activists. Separating antagonistic neighbors who refuse to negotiate from those neighbors who are willing to compromise shows city hall that antagonistic project opponents represent only their own unreasonable and minority opinions and not the perspectives of the larger neighborhood.

Nearby neighbors will often try to designate themselves as the "community" in control of negotiations, even if this excludes other interests. Keep in mind, though, that there is no absolute definition of "community." As a practical matter, the community is anyone you can convince a city council member or planning commissioner to listen to. You should therefore take control of the negotiation process and invite responsive neighbors to participate before self-selected activists designate themselves as the affected neighborhood's sole spokespersons.

The bargaining table can be expanded to include interests more likely to consider the development proposal in a reasonable manner. You can engage in interactive dialogue with representatives of the business community, with construction trade unions, with tax base proponents who will benefit from revenues generated by the project (e.g., public employee unions, police groups, school organizations), with special interest communities (e.g., parents of children in daycare, recreational users of open space) that will enjoy project amenities or with any other "community" that can credibly persuade city hall of the project's merits.

When a project's negative impacts are localized within the immediate neighborhood but its benefits are shared by the entire city, you can take advantage of the "flip side" of NIMBYism. Voters throughout the city generally will support construction of the project in any neighborhood but their own. Instead of negotiating only with nearby (and hostile) neighbors, you can sit down with residents from other parts of the city to show political decision makers that the project will affect the entire population and not just the self-interested enclave of adjacent neighbors.

A note of caution is in order. The overly broad involvement of other neighbors can backfire if new participants in the negotiation process decide to "back" the authority of the intractable neighbors who initially refused to sit down with you. Expanding the negotiation process to include numerous neighbors is most appropriate when average neighborhood residents are likely to resent the presumption that they cannot speak for their own interests but must instead depend on the representation of the self-appointed spokespersons.

When neighbors absolutely refuse to make concessions, you can look to city hall and try to work with a more responsive political leader who purports to represent the identified community or neighborhood constituency. In lieu of talking with citizens, a developer can solicit input on a project from a sympathetic politician, inviting the official to articulate concerns that the neighbors would likely voice if they were willing to sit at the bargaining table. When the negotiation spotlight shifts back to city hall, citizen antagonists lose most of their political forum for directly affecting the decision. Many neighbors will likely lose interest in the project and start backing out of the dispute if they see their interests represented by a recognized civic leader. Of course, encouraging a responsive politician to take a leadership role in resolving project concerns can replace citizen-oriented negotiations only when the elected official clearly "speaks" for the affected community and can offer a more reasonable perspective on the project than community residents.

Don't Call it Negotiations
Whether you sit down with neighbors to work out problems or roll up your sleeves to resolve problems with politicians, your characterization of the resolution process is critical to the success of the negotiation. To a developer, an invitation to "negotiate" may simply to be an offer to consider minor project modifications to satisfy neighbors. Neighbors, however, may refuse to engage in a dialogue with the developers simply because the concepts of "bargaining" and "negotiation" are so ambiguous and because they fear that making such an open-ended commitment might jeopardize their interests. To citizens, a solicitation to negotiate can be perceived as a demand that participating neighbors agree to change their positions. When neighbors are totally opposed to the proposed project in any form, an agreement to "bargain," they fear, can make them look as though they now have accepted the project and need only debate minor, technical points.

Dispute resolution activities should be characterized in terms that appeal to neighbors' self-interests. While residents may reject an invitation to "negotiate" a compromise development alternative, they will probably welcome an invitation to enumerate neighborhood concerns or to review and criticize a proposal. Couching bilateral communications in terms that cater to neighbors' concerns can open the door to the same interaction that would occur under the name of "negotiations."

In addition, it is easier to elicit a series of small constructive responses from neighbors than to insist that opponents embrace the idea of negotiating about the entire project. If a consensual agreement on the entire development proposal is unlikely, then the developer should reassure neighbors that any specific suggestions they offer to make the project more responsive to their concerns does not indicate overall endorsement of the project. The most important short-term goal is to get the neighbors to the table in the first place; you can move them to the second-place position of supporting project after a give-and-take relationship has been established.

Document Refusal To Negotiate
When negotiations fail, neighbors often try to shift blame by accusing the developer of refusing to meet or to compromise. If you are truly compelled to seek a negotiated settlement with neighbors and are unable to resolve disputes through the negotiation process, then you must protect yourself from charges of bad faith by documenting the neighbors' intransigence.

All invitations to meet and discuss the project should be made or confirmed in writing. A standard format memorandum summarizing each telephone conversation with neighbors should be prepared in case opponents later dispute whether conversations occurred or deny statements made. Detailed meeting agendas that outline the negotiation process and issues presented for resolution should be prepared well in advance of negotiation sessions. It is essential to keep recorded minutes of every meeting to document the nature of the meeting; copies of minutes or confirmatory letters can be sent to meeting participants with a fixed time period in which to dispute in writing the recorded minutes. Finally, a time line should be drawn to show your persistent attempts to meet with neighbors to resolve differences, along with their consistent refusal to negotiate.

A project is not necessarily doomed when neighbors refuse to negotiate. Under certain conditions, a developer can gain needed support by engaging in more effective public communications or more extensive public participation programs. When disputes actually need to be resolved to gain community support for your project, you can negotiate with more responsive parties or try to characterize the desired interaction in terms that are more acceptable to neighbors. When patience and flexibility, your community relations program can be successful even when neighbors refuse to join you at the bargaining table.

Additional Sources
For more information on dealing with opposition to your project, see:

  • Breaking the Impasse: Consensual Approaches to Resolving Public Disputes. Lawrence Susskind and Jeffrey Cruikshank (Basic Books, 1987).
  • Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. Roger Fisher and William Ury (Houghton Mifflin, 1981). (available through NAHB Bookstore).]
  • People Skills: How to Assert Yourself, Listen to Others, and Resolve Conflicts. Robert Bolton (Simon & Schuster, 1979).
  • Resolving Municipal Disputes, David Stiebel (Association of Bay Area Governments, 1992).
  • The Complete Negotiator. Gerald Nierenberg (Berkley Books, 1986).
  • Winning Community Support for Land Use Projects, Debra Stein (Urban Land Institute, 1992)

Debra Stein is the author of Winning Community Support for Land Use Projects (Urban Land Institute, 1992) and president of GCA Strategies, a San Francisco-based public affairs firm specializing in land use.

David Stiebel, Ph.D., is a conflict mediator from Sunnyvale, California, and the author of Resolving Municipal Disputes (Association of Bay Area Governments, 1992).