Winning Building Approvals Despite Opposition

Frank Noto

To many, the very idea of death is frightening. People don't want to be reminded of death because they don't accept it as a natural part of life.

So it is no surprise that neighbors often instinctively oppose locating funeral homes, mortuaries or cemeteries in their communities. Even expanding an existing facility can provoke neighborhood resistance.

So what can you do to keep local residents from stopping your building permit -- or rezoning your prospective business out of existence? Here are useful tips for cemetery business owners and professionals who want to avoid a fight-to-the-death with neighbors:

Figure Out the Rules
Yes, city hall decision-making may seem confusing or political. But local officials cannot arbitrarily deny your project without referring to a specific set of land use laws and regulations.

Your first step is to figure out what legal standards need to be met for permit approval. Visit the local planning department for copies of applicable building, planning, or zoning codes. Do you need to submit application forms, drawings, or letters of support? Your project architect or attorney often can point you in the right direction.

Find Out Who Decides
Who at city hall will make the decision on your permit, project or rezoning application? Is it a planning department staffer, or an appointed planning commission? Do the city council, selectmen, mayor, or board of supervisors normally vote on your project, or can the decision be appealed to them?

Will the public have a say in the decision? Will there be a public hearing of some type? Find out who will receive official public notice of your permit application, and make sure they hear it from you first. And if the local newspaper regularly scrutinizes building applications, you may wish to broaden your outreach efforts to a larger audience.

If a city hall staff member independently makes the decision based on strict planning regulations, there may be no reason to get either politicians or neighbors riled up. But if decision makers are swayed by public opinion, then you must communicate with that public.

Learn About the Community
Each neighborhood is different, and these differences can affect your project. Some communities may be more sensitive to traffic impacts, while environmental issues are paramount in others. Opposition may be reduced by restricting funeral processions and services during peak traffic hours in the first community, or by restricting use of pesticides on cemetery grounds in the second.

The support of business leaders may be crucial in one town, while religious leaders may be especially influential in another. Is there a politically active minority population in your city? Think about ways your establishment can be helpful to that community and win support from its leaders. Also high on your list of priorities is recognizing those who see themselves as community leaders and will be offended if not consulted and given proper deference.

Decide What to Say
Every teenager on a first date knows to put his or her best foot forward. Comb that hair, brush those teeth, smile a lot. Similarly, you will want to put your best foot forward by using the most persuasive messages to promote your project.

For major projects with a lot on the line, businesses can afford surveys or other opinion research to identify the most persuasive themes and messages. When this is not possible, be a good listener. Notice what people say about your proposed project, how they respond to your description of project benefits, and the questions they ask -- and tailor your message accordingly.

Finally, your message must be relevant and stated in easy-to-understand language. Target your communications to each audience; neighbors may be most concerned with traffic on their street, while members of a particular church may be more interested in the availability of burial facilities to members of their religious group. Materials and presentations should show how the project can further the target audience's self-interest as well as the general good.

Minimize Opposition
Opposition generally arises from three causes: lack of information, frustration with being ignored, and conflict of interest. Opposition due to misinformation or exaggerated fears can best be reduced by providing clear information before opinions form. For example, those who fear toxic chemical use at a mortuary may withdraw their opposition if they understand that use of chemicals is strictly regulated and procedures are carefully followed. Public information methods include distribution of fact sheets and brochures, mailers and videos. However, when neighbors want to express their own opinions about a project, a massive public information campaign can add to frustration rather than reduce it.

Public participation programs (including one-on-one briefings, community meetings and open houses) can respond to neighbors who seek validation of their leadership roles. Initial outreach to community leaders, neighbors and potential opponents should typically be on an individual or small group basis to allow citizens to express ideas about a project and obtain the personal attention they expect. Large public meetings, however, often do little but introduce potential opponents to each other and encourage them to convince others. Unless required by city hall, try using other forms of neighborhood outreach first.

Conflicts of interest can often be resolved through negotiations. Issues which can be negotiated include concessions, mitigation of negative impacts, or compensating benefits. For example, some opponents may accept a project if construction hours are limited.

Maximize Support
Identify supporters through community outreach and then mobilize them to express their support for the project. Supporters can be found in various broad constituencies:

  • Obvious direct beneficiaries (construction workers, suppliers, cemetery workers, proposed project site property owners)
  • Potential project users (churches)
  • Indirect beneficiaries (local merchants who would like more street traffic)
  • Special interest groups (AIDS support groups)

In addition, members of the general public may support the project because of their beliefs or simply because the project is in the public interest. These may be identified because they attended civic meetings on the project. If there is a high expectation of support, a door-to-door telephone canvas can be used to effectively solicit supporters. Finally, use previously collected project endorsements to enlist additional support. Knowing that credible community leaders approve of a proposal makes it easier for others to extend their support. Early endorsements can be incorporated into public information materials and presentations, as can supportive quotes.

The most effective community relations program in the world is worthless if decision-makers are unaware of public support. Here are three ways to convince city hall that the public supports your project, listed in descending order of effectiveness:

  1. Citizens can communicate their support directly -- through letters, personal testimony at hearings, post cards, petitions, phone calls or meetings with city council members.
  2. Citizens can express their support to you through letters, etc., and you can transmit this support to city hall.
  3. You can privately advise government officials of community support, or write a letter to community leaders confirming the issues you have discussed and the extent of public support, and send a copy of this letter to city hall. But make sure not to misrepresent that all citizens are wholly satisfied with your project if opposition remains.

Informing Decision Makers
Once you have begun soliciting public support you are ready to submit a permit application, it's time to alert governmental decision makers about your project. Politicians do not like to be surprised, and you cannot assume that they have been briefed by city staff. This initial briefing gives decision makers a chance to hear your message first, and provides you an opportunity to evaluate their concerns and support for the project. You don't need to convince the political leadership at an initial meeting; it is sometimes better to save persuasive lobbying until you have a better idea where the decision makers stand.

Manage the Public Hearing
Don't stop when you approach the finish line: you must carefully manage the public hearing process to maximize your public support. This involves two essential steps -- arranging your own testimony and coordinating public comment by project supporters. In addition to highlighting public support, you must present clear evidence that your project meets all legal criteria.

Just because you know what should be said by the public at a hearing does not mean your supporters will know. That is why you should preview their testimony and, if necessary, provide a brief outline of suggested talking points.

Get Profession Help
The sensitivity and compassion required of you in your daily work gives you a leg up in any community relations efforts. But just as you are an expert in your industry, experts in governmental advocacy are often needed to untangle red tape and delays at city hall.

If you anticipate opposition or controversy, it may be a good idea to get professional help. When looking for a governmental relations and community relations firm to help with lobbying and neighborhood outreach, be sure to check their experience in land use approvals before making a selection. With the right approach and professional help, you can make city hall work for you, too.