Even the smallest projects seeking a zoning variance or permit face the daunting political and bureaucratic processes that are in place to protect the character of Boston and communities across the state. Boston is renowned for the rigorous scrutiny of proposed projects by state and city officials, various city agencies, community groups and residents who have a vested interest in any project. An intricate system is in place that protects the neighborhood while allowing all pertinent parties – no matter how small – the opportunity to participate in the zoning or permitting process of proposed developments.

When a company is planning to permit or rezone a site it must realize that much more than its own interests are at stake and any opposition has the power to make or break a deal. Therefore, the company needs to run the process much like a political campaign. In the spirit of a campaign, a company must identify its own goals, consider the community point of view, evaluate the political landscape, lobby for support and understand the need to be patient and willing to negotiate with all interested parties.

Identifying Goals

Before any zoning variances can be granted or permits pulled, project goals must by identified. These goals will prioritize which aspects are the most important, whether it is square footage, use or height. They will serve as guidelines throughout the permitting and governmental process. A company must be willing to negotiate the less important aspects of the project, while at the same time, justifying the main goals. It is important to position the company and the project in the most positive light while underscoring the negative ramifications that could occur if the project is denied.

When seeking a zoning variance or a permit to build in a community the company must do its homework. Much like a political campaign, the key players and the pinnacle issues in the community must be identified. Whether sitting in a neighbor’s kitchen talking through the impact of the development or hosting informational sessions for community members, it is important that the company fully understand the concerns of the community members and what matters most to them. These issues, which the community feels so strongly about, can range from the height of the building and the shadow it casts or the impact on an already congested traffic area. Residents may be concerned about the use of the building, that open space will be eliminated or the impact upon town/city services. It is important to recognize concerns, impacts and priorities vary in priority from person to person, group to group and community to community. The company must remember that no two neighborhoods are exactly the same.

It is also important to be a good corporate citizen and a good neighbor. By playing an active role in the community and establishing the company as a good citizen, it will have earned the trust and respect of the community and they will be less likely to view the project with skepticism.

However, even the most distinguished and philanthropic company faces some form of opposition. Opponents are always vocal and passionate, while supporters are often silent and apathetic. Opponents can be aggressive, well organized and lethal. These opponents need to be addressed and neutralized before any progress can be made. The company seeking the permit or zoning variance should be willing to listen to the concerns of the opponents while emphasizing the merits of the project. Many times opposition arises when individuals do not understand the project and cannot comprehend the benefits. Misinformation and distrust occur in a vacuum. Steps should be taken to mitigate these misunderstandings and concerns through one-on-one meetings or informational sessions to educate the opponents as much as possible, recognizing any potential impacts of the project and how you intend to alleviate them. Depending upon the extent of the opposition and their points of contention, negotiation is always a useful tool to exhibit the willingness to compromise to appease some concerns.

Opponents can make it appear as if the entire community is against the project even if it is not. That is why it is important to identify allies. Supporters are easier to identify if the company has distinguished itself as an actively involved citizen. The first step when identifying possible allies is the office of the local elected official. An introductory meeting shows the political official respect of the office and of their community. Lay out all the facts for the elected official so that they have the necessary information to make an informed decision about the project.

Understand too, that the political climate of the town or city of the proposal may affect the success of the project. In some cases, the project may become an issue in an election year. Disputes between governmental agencies may also prevent outward support for the project. Consequently, supporters of the project may not always have the ability to demonstrate their support, but the proposing company should recognize the limitations and the roles that politics play in any project. Identify potential allies such as community opinion leaders (influential citizens actively involved in the politics and community of the area), community organizations and residents.

Once these initial steps are taken to ensure the proposal has been processed in the community, the challenge is almost complete. By identifying the issues of concern and the opponents and allies of the project, the company will be more confident when applying for the permit or the zoning variance because the goals and obstacles are clearly defined.

The most important thing to remember is to pay attention. Community members, opinion leaders and elected officials are vested in the communities in that they work and live. Have an understanding of the community and of the political landscape. Listen to the concerns and needs of both the major players and of the man-on-the-street and be willing to compromise. If the company establishes itself as a good citizen by making an effort to participate in the community where it wants to work, it establishes credibility. People are more likely to work with the company to win the permit or zoning variance. In the end, all sides can claim victory when the company’s project is defined as a mutually beneficial endeavor that will create new jobs, increase the tax base and preserve open space.

Before Permits Are Handed Out, Public Support Must Be Gained

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 4 min