Experts break down how home builders can master public hearings
You've sweat blood to put this deal together. Your home building company's ability to stay in business hangs on this vote. The equity investors you spent six months recruiting are in that room, waiting to hear city council decide the fate of your proposed redevelopment of an optioned infill site. And they're not alone. More than 200 homeowners from the surrounding neighborhood are waiting in there as well. What will you see when you open the door — smiling faces, or picket signs?
Infill is the name of the game these days, but getting approval for it can involve arduous public hearings. No one wants to build subdivisions in exurbia anymore, especially in housing markets overflowing with unsold homes. Density is another piece of the puzzle, because the A+ infill sites have not dropped in price like cornfields at the edge of town. You need to build at higher densities than conventional single-family zoning allows to get your home prices low enough for the superior location to pull buyers into the market.
That means a lot of builders are trying to rezone infill sites to allow construction of high-density detached and attached housing. The trouble is, any increase in density will often spur political opposition — not just from the hardcore not-in-my-backyarders, screaming about increased traffic, but sometimes from school boards and parents concerned about school funding, and even from people worrying about increased costs of fire and police protection.
This is not a new story. Entitling non-conforming land uses has never been easy, and it won't get easier just because market dynamics point to higher density infill development as the hot product of the next decade. Still, the pros who have been working in this market segment for years say there's plenty you can do in advance to make sure that when you walk into a public hearing that will decide the fate of your project, nobody hits you with a picket sign.
Victor Mirontschuk, principal partner of Houston-based EDI Architecture, chuckles when he says this: “You'd be surprised how many times people start a formal hearing by mispronouncing the name of the city or a prominent street or a landmark, like a river or nearby mountain. It might seem silly, but if you do that, it labels you as an outsider and calls into question your level of professionalism and the thoroughness of your research.” Not the way to start off on the right foot.
Every local council, commission or board has its own set of rules for conducting public hearings. Debra Stein, president of a San Francisco-based public affairs firm — GCA Strategies — that specializes in land-use entitlement work, cautions that you can't take advantage of the rules if you don't know them. “Pay special attention to the rules governing the order in which speakers are allowed to testify,” she says. “If you can control it, you'll want to put the best speaker in your advocacy team first and space others out so they can counter any points raised by opponents.”
Learn everything there is to know about the site, especially any past attempts to develop it. Control the site with an option contract, with closing contingent on entitlement of your development plan. Commission a thorough research study of the housing market, both overall and the sub-market specific to the site. Most municipalities now allow mixed-use projects to be built under Planned Unit Development (PUD) regulations, and planners often push for mixed-use.
“Without a market study, you won't know whether a specific land use makes sense for your site,” cautions Dave Williams, who leads infill land planning for Boulder, Col.-based DTJ Design. “If the planning staff says they want a retail component in the project, the research will allow you to decide if that's feasible.”
Mirontschuk suggests driving around the surrounding neighborhoods to study the existing housing stock. “You ought to be able to cite examples of historic architectural periods by referring to specific homes by their street addresses. If you can find examples of historic houses built to similar densities and heights as those in your proposal, it helps.”
The design professionals who tailor high-density development plans that garner support in official public hearings are virtually universal in recommending that builders — or their representatives — meet the neighbors that surround a site long before presenting any development proposal in a public forum.
Land planners and architects who specialize in high-density housing for infill sites are a different breed, often more lobbyists than designers.
“Know thy enemy,” says Denver-based land planner David Clinger. “I need to walk the site to understand the topography and physical constraints on design, but I also want to walk the surrounding neighborhoods and talk to people to gauge what concerns neighbors may have about development of the site.”
Clinger says his first stop is to meet municipal planners to see what makes them tick, and those planners are often able to identify thought leaders among the site's neighbors. “I want to meet the leaders one-on-one or in small groups,” he says, “to find out if their concerns are things we can address in the design process, or if they are just opposed to having anything built.”
Scott Adams is a senior principal of Southern California-based Bassenian/Lagoni Architects, long known as an innovator in high-density housing, especially detached homes above 7 units per acre. “We're consensus builders,” he says. “By meeting with the neighbors and identifying their concerns before we get deeply into design, we can defuse their opposition before it happens, with design solutions. We may even turn them into advocates of our proposal.”
All the designers seem to make the same point: You can't find potential areas of common ground or opportunities to compromise until you open a dialogue with neighbors, and that needs to happen before (and during) design. “If the neighbors sense they are involved in a collaborative process, they will be much less likely to oppose the final design when it's presented in the public hearing,” Adams says.
If what you're proposing is close to the prescribed land use for the site, it's much easier to get approved than a radical departure in density, uses or housing forms. A big change, even one the city wants, can polarize neighbors and lead to immediate opposition. “Honesty is the best policy,” says Dave Williams, who suggests builders enliven meetings with neighbors by showing them several alternative proposals at the very first meeting, “as long as the builder can live with whatever comes out of this collaborative process.”
What usually results is some hybrid form of project that often works better for everyone, Williams offers. “If you listen to people and learn what they fear and why, you can usually address those fears directly. And even if your final design is not exactly what they want, they'll embrace it because the emotion of their fear is defused.”
If the collaborative approach with neighbors works, you may even find a raving fan or two among them who will be willing to testify at the public hearing in favor of your proposed development, often based on a belief that the project will have a positive impact on property values in the neighborhood (which is probably the core of the builder's argument for the project). This is the jackpot. Only a builder with a golden tongue, a reputation for quality work, and a long record of standing behind promises made in public testimony can speak in a public hearing as effectively as a local resident who stands beside the builder.
“What you want to accomplish is to reach the public hearing and discover there are no surprises at all,” says Scott Adams. “Converting neighbors into advocates who will stand up and speak in favor of the proposal is the best thing that can happen. The worst is walking into a hostile room unprepared for the opposition.”
One area where we found some disagreement among builder lobbyists is on the question of whether the builder should lead his own advocacy team in testimony at the public hearing. Some say yes, some no, others say maybe. It seems to depend on whether the builder is good at it or not, and some advocates have had more experience with the former.
“Some do it well, others don't,” says Mirontschuk. “It depends on the personality. I have one client who completely turned around virtually all of the 200 opponents who blindsided him two months earlier in a public hearing. These were people who showed up at the first hearing with their attorney and videotapes of the last developer who tried to develop the site in 1993. He got bushwhacked, but he turned them all around in two months. Now, they love him. He convinced them that he'll do what he promises.”
Mirontschuk says he has other clients who never testify, for good reason. “Some builders are asses, and they know it. They stay away.”