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Techniques of environmental political action in small towns

For many years, I've been occasionally involved in local political action to maintain and extend open space land in Connecticut. Here are a few things I've learned.

1. In land development, money doesn't talk, it screams. There is e

normous money to be made in building and land development; developers are focused, persistent, experienced, and well-financed. In the long run, the best way to save open space is to buy the land and turn it over to the Town or perhaps a land trust (with extremely detailed and thorough legal restrictions on permitted activities). It is possible to tie projects up with legalities, hearings, and politics--but even if you win one year, there might well be some other developer with a bright idea for the land next year. Thus try to start an open-space acquisition program by the town; in my experience, voters tend to favor funding for open-space acquisition (often exceeding approval rates for school budgets, roads, sewers,and narrow interest-group proposals such as skateparks, tax benefits for malls and sports teams, etc.).

2. Many towns (that is, their taxpayers) provide substantial subsidies, direct and indirect, for land development by funding the necessary infrastructure (water, roads, sewers, loans, tax subsidies). Pro-development politicians can it "investment;" others might call it "welfare socialism for rich developers." At any rate, it is funded by taxpayers. Priorities can be challenged, and development subsidies can be diverted to open space acquisition. It may well be that the local politicians are pro-development but often the voters are less so; thus try to move decisions about priorities to the electorate (and the taxpayers). In general, the broader the decision-making arena, the more likely pro-environmental campaigns will succeed. A slogan for open-space acquisition might be "They're not making any more land; let's save it now." Why not use tax dollars for open space rather than taxpayer-subsidized real estate development? Should all those tax dollars help out needy developers?

3. Local political systems can sometimes be quite porous and responsive to effective political action. "They" don't necessarily run everything everywhere. There are many avenues of influence to use in a multi-prong strategy: talking to local politicians, making campaign contributions, speaking out at public hearings, starting petitions, writing letters to newspapers, working with journalists, hiring a lawyer and a land-use consultant. In many land-use issues, the most important players are the town civil servants; get to know them, learn about their work, get documents from them, drop by and talk to them, watch them at meetings, and don't denounce them publicly (or privately). Small-town newspapers are sometimes desperate for sensible letters (just look at what they publish now). Start a letter-writing campaign: one letter to the editor may appear to be crank mail, two letters a concern, three letters a mass movement. Get to know the local newpaper reporters; gossip with them. Get names, phones, fax, email addresses of all relevant news reporters to distribute your speeches and documents. In political campaigns, try to vote the pro-development officials out of office. It might be particularly effective to construct an environmental scorecard that ranks elected officials by their votes on key environmental issues; then publish the scorecard two or three weeks before the election in newspapers and letters to the editor. Generally, the more that environmental issues can be surfaced publicly, the more the conservationists win. Land-use commissions sometimes prefer to work privately, in ill-attended meetings; even a few people showing up at meetings will get the attention of decision-makers; a lot of people will profoundly focus their minds. The public focus will also provide decision-makers with a excuse to their developer friends about why they couldn't deliver the votes on a particular project.

4. When you give a speech at a hearing, provide the written text to the town officials and reporters at the hearing (sometimes as a formal submission to the hearing board). Then just read/talk through your written text in the speech. Keep the speech short but with several key items, and on point. Try to have some vivid specifics (enumerate the trees to be cut down, the opportunities lost, the particular thoughtlessness of the development plan) along with more analytical arguments. Try to make it clear why a general opposing principle (for example, "A man should be able to do what he wants with his land") is not relevant in this case. Address the decision-makers, not your allies or opponents in the audience. If interrupted by opponents in the audience, have a prepared response--perhaps "you had your turn to talk, may I now please address the land-use commissioners?" Also give your handout to reporters before the meeting, along with your name, the name of your organization ("Friends of the Park," or whatever), and phone number. Try to be the first speaker when your issue finally comes up at a meeting. Show up early, get on the agenda. Introduce yourself to the officials, staff, and journalists. Prepare responses in advance to questions that might be asked; rehearse in advance being questioned or replied to by members of hearing board (those folks sitting up on high chairs behind the grand table at the front of the room). If in doubt, simply repeat the key sentences of your speech. Avoid personal attacks on decision-makers on land-use commissions; such attacks can be counter-productive and cause the members of the commission to circle the wagons and defend their colleagues against such attacks.

5. In local politics, what goes round comes round. The resolution of land-use problems involves mutual agreement among the town, developers, land-use commissions, and conservationists. Don't prematurely denounce and alienate other participants in this process, since they may well be part of the solution later on. Avoid personalizing the conflict. The point of the political process is to solve problems.

6. And the point of politics is to win; you are going to have to persuade people. Keep your eye on the target--which is winning, not deno

uncing, not claiming credit, not saving face. Some citizens view the political process as an opportunity to vent, to rant, to engage in personal attacks. How about winning instead? Anger needs to be translated into effective political action, into the hard work of political organizing, political thinking, and persuasion. (And anyway, you will probably have all too many allies who would rather vent now than win later. So you try to provide something else.)

7. A good lawyer, with values close to yours, can be an enormous help. Usually this means finding an out-of-town environmental lawyer who has been through it all before. Most local lawyers will be tied into the real-estate behemoth (that's where the money is) and won't even take local land-use cases for the environmental side. Also your good environmental lawyer, a specialist, will know a lot more about environmental law and land-use procedures than the local town counsel or the local lawyers for developers. A good lawyer really gets the attention of decision-makers.

8. Land-use consultants (wetland specialists, soils scientists), again probably from out-of-town, can provide helpful evidence. They can combine a bit of science with detailed and heart-rending descriptions of nature destroyed, along with broad advice about land-use policies and practices in other nearby towns. Such consultants make most of their money by helping developers; find someone who has at least worked for both sides. Land-use evidence is not entirely scientific and objective; consultants can sometimes cherry-pick data and find useful material for either side, particularly the side that's paying the bills.

9. Political corruption usually occurs where the big money is (public works projects, construction projects, arcane zoning law changes permitting lucrative use of a once-protected site, development subsidies); maybe you can turn something up and help a newspaper (or prosecutor) expose corrupt officials and developers and send them to jail, or at least make them behave better. We've had a lot of political-economic corruption in Connecticut in recent years. This strategy burns bridges and you had better be right and careful. And if not corruption, conflicts of interest. There is real leverage here. Check out sources of campaign contributions; revolving-door members of land-use commissions (lawyers who serve on the commission, leave, and then appear as advocates before the commission); personal and economic connections to the real-estate industry of those who serve on land-use commissions. You may be able to disable unfriendly decision-makers with conflict-of-interest charges, a bruising but devastating strategy.

10. Don't be misled by a short-term win or a loss; things may well go on and on. There are many attack points, endless hearings, many commissions--for both sides. Keep at it.

11. A relatively small amount of money can have a lot of leverage in small-town politics. I've been repeatedly surprised at the modest finances of small-town political parties and political campaigns--a few hundred dollars here and there can make a difference. This is a small amount compared to what a good lawyer will cost you. Be sure to follow precisely the laws concerning political contributions.

12. Start an organization (it need only have a few people). Give it a good, evocative name: "Friends of Memorial Park," or "(name of town) Neighborhood Association." Design a letterhead, get a mailing address, put your organization's name on all your communications. Building a large organization is a good way to waste a lot of time and resources; many things can be done by a few people and a bit of money. If you start to build an organization, assume that some of your members will be reporting back to your opponents and that everything is public.

13. Those who put themselves out in public will sometimes attract attention, criticism, personal attack, crank calls, hate mail, nut cases. You are already a success! Efforts at intimidation are not uncommon (by hearing board members and politicians, town lawyers, opposing lawyers, writers of letters to the editor, and, of course, developers). This comes with the package. The forces of evil are trying to shut you up by intimidation. Greet such attacks with an earnest persistence and new dedication to conserving some land.

-- Edward Tufte


I failed to mention at least one more important point:

You or one of your allies should do extensive research in the records of the town: transcripts of hearings, zoning laws, meeting schedules, land records, filings by developers, and other town records. A good researcher can turn up all kinds of helpful materials. Here you see the raw evidence of policy-making. Such records are open to the public and usually you can make xerox copies of such material. (Resistance to obtaining such records can be met by filing freedom-of-information-act requests, although foia interventions are something of nuclear weapon, since they invoke legal procedures and stone-walling.) Better to work in a business-like but friendly way with town officials to guide you through the records. By the way, I have found, on average, that town officials (the professional civil servants) are the most concerned (of all those involved) with factual matters and sound evidence in a process that otherwise involves intense advocacy, endless evidence selection, truth-stretching, and personal attacks.

I hope this thread will evoke ideas about effective and evidence-based political communication, and strategies of effective political action.

-- Edward Tufte


Oh No! A municipal official responds!

E.T. hits on several useful points above, the best of which is that money does, in fact, SCREAM in land use policy, be it environmental or otherwise. But why let others make all the noise? The best advice I have ever received in my "environmental planning" career is that grants and donations are certainly welcome and nice if you can get them, but if you really want to preserve open land- buy it!

So what, readers of this forum may ask, does this have to do with information design? Shown below is a table designed and compiled by the municipal Planning Office in the Town of Cheshire, Connecticut, with assistance from Edward Tufte, who we are lucky to count among our local residents and resources.

The table is simple. The upper portion describes the history of our local land acquisition funding mechanism (public referendum), showing the annual level of support and how much the taxpayers' investment has already grown over the years.

The bottom portion quickly summarizes what we have done with the money- bought land!! Per capita numbers and equivalences are given to assist the reader envision where their money is going. Knowing there is a "tennis court" worth of open space for every man, woman, and child in town means more to the average taxpayer than 0.06258 acres. (Hopefully this technique works more straightforwardly here than in the "How Much is $87 Billion Worth?" thread on this board.)

For presentations, this table is typically bundled with an accompanying table itemizing actual land purchases, and an atlas-worth of maps. Of course, handout versions are provided. This has all been done to inform the public about a local open space initiative which will continue as long as the taxpayers are willing to fund it.

-- Mark Kasinskas (email)


A virtue of the table is that it anticipates some questions about the data that would be diverting in a public discussion. For example, if the dollars aren't deflated, then someone might rightly ask "what about inflation adjustment?" A cost per acre adjustment might be considered also; that number will bounce around a lot depending on the particular purchase that year and on the increase in land prices over the years.

The voting results are helpful in signalling that the taxpayers (at least those who vote) are generally approving the open-space acquisition program by rather large margins.

A historical table of this sort is useful in presentations because the table may evoke, among the various people in the room, various memories of the what has happened over the years.

The tabular format is best for these data, rather than a spaghetti of various lines (with encodings?) that might appear in a graphic. Also the table has a serious business-like quality that some graphics lack.

This data table should be be followed by a narrative list of the parcels purchased over the years--name, cost, cost per acre, local color. This will turn the dollars of the first table into the land meaning of those dollars.

-- Edward Tufte


Generally avoid adverbial adjustments of numbers, as in "over 1,310 acres." It sounds too much like marketing. Three (or is it four?) significant digits are enough here. There is further discussion of this point in our thread on rhetorical ploys in evidence presentations at https://www.edwardtufte.com/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg?msg_id=0000hi&topic_id=1

-- Edward Tufte


Think about this table above using the PowerPoint templates for tables. In 28 PP textbooks, the median number of numbers in the examples of tables is 12. The PP stylesheet prepared by Harvard School of Public Health also recommends 12 numbers per slide. (If your data are that thin, why are you talking?) The table above, following the PP-textbook table templates and the Harvard stylesheet, would require 8 PP slides. How can we make comparisons if the data are in 8 little pieces? Or printed out in PP format as 8 separate slides, sometimes on 8 separate pieces of paper? The slide format for data tables attracts attention to the presentation's compositional methods rather than to the evidence.

Now another way would be simply to take the above image and show it as a PP slide. Can everyone read the type projected on the screen? And once the slide goes away the data go away. Note also the asymmetry imposed by the standard PP presentation methodology: one speaker in the front showing slides as the audience looks at a screen. This will not do in a public hearing, where there are many members of the commission at the front and many audience members, often talking to and at each other. You want to reach everyone, especially the commissioners.

Instead, give everyone in the room a piece of paper showing the data table above. It will be a nice souvenir of the meeting that will outlast the meeting. Since your data table is the hands of the people at the meeting, they will be likely to talk about it, use it as a reference. Also the paper version of the table will be particularly useful to news reporters writing about the hearing. And put something else on the other side of the paper also.

What if the members of the Commission and the audience read your table before you talk? Or read ahead as you are talking? Or read it while someone else is talking? This is wonderful! They are reading your material! You are already a success. Why should people have to follow along your every word at your rate of information transfer in speech (the PP model)? People can read a lot faster than they can listen to you talk.

-- Edward Tufte


When I lived in the town of Hebron, Connecticut I served as chairman of the town's planning and zoning commission (1985-1991), as a selectman (1991-1997), and as chairman of an ad hoc committee on open space land acquisition (1998-1999). Item #1 on your "things I've learned" list (the one that initiated this thread) is absolutely on point. One of my colleagues on the P&Z commission-- after repeatedly hearing me state that "if you want to keep land from being developed, the only effective strategy is to buy it"-- decided to resign from the commission so he could organize a land trust (he did, and the trust has emerged as a key player in town). Another very important point you make is #5 (what goes around comes around). It really is possible to find common ground on most local land-use issues; the key is civility and rational, fact-based discourse. By all means, go and publish your insights. Consider contacting The Hartford Courant about letting you do a piece for their "Place" feature (all about local land-use and community planning) in the Sunday Commentary section.

-- Fred Schott (email)


A superb new book on environmental action at the local level is Judith Perlman, Citizen's Primer for Conservation Activism: How to Fight Development in Your Community, recently published by the University of Texas Press (inexpensive paperback):

http://www.utexas.edu/utpress/books/percit.html

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0292702906

The book is thoughtful and direct, describing practical strategies for making development less hostile to the environment. The focus in on how to win not how to rant.

Particularly useful are the sample responses to the big lies of developers, especially the one about how residential development reduces taxes (for a growing town, property tax growth fails to offset school expenditure growth). Also Perlman points out that developers are often highly leveraged, may not own the land, need to move fast, have no stake in the community. This means delays may send the current threat away at least temporarily, and also that some developers may submit generic plans--in the spirit of "hey let's try this"-- that are inappropriate to the local area and therefore should be rejected by the town.

[link updated February 2005]

-- Edward Tufte


This is a piece by Adam Nicolson in the London Daily Telegraph yesterday (December 18th). I couldn't find a hyperlink to it so I have typed it out. The village of Battle is named after the battle of Senlac (commonly called the Battle of Hastings) in 1066, the most important date in English history because it was the last time we were successfully invaded. The area was also on the route of Caesar's legions (55 BC) and the subsequent Roman road from his landing place to the strategic city fortress of Rochester, and was the centre of the iron industry of the Roman Empire. It is covered in neolithic burial grounds (1500 BC and beyond). The UK is over-brimming with competing historic remains, so this part of East Sussex doesn't have the same unique resonance as the field of Gettysburg with an access road for refuse trucks through Arlington National Cemetery — but in terms of its importance for British history it is of the same sort of order.

* * * * *

"About four miles down the road from where I live in the Sussex Weald, the local community has just achieved an extraordinary success against the combined forces of East Sussex County Council and the sort of big business that is interested in making money out of household rubbish. It is a salutary tale of how to make democracy work, how to insist that the law applies, how to fight wrong-headed local government and how to ensure that still more of this country is not wrecked by ill-thought-out development. If you are looking for a Christmas present, there could hardly be better than this: a beautiful part of England will now remain forever beautiful because the people who live in it have fought, far beyond the limits of what they thought they could, to keep it that way.

Five years ago, in the small brick-and-tile village of Mountfirld, in the middle of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, with anemone-filled woods, cattle and sheep grazing in the steep valleys, was told that it was going to have a giant incinerator built on its doorstep. All the rubbish generated by the people who live in the coastal towns of East Sussex would be trucked up there, and burnt, with a vast 300ft chimney pouring its smoke and fumes out across the country, reservoirs and schools. The incinerator was to last a century.

I still remember the terrible sense of anxiety of the people of Mountfield, Netherfield, and Battle at the time. No normal human being, of course, comes pre-equipped to deal with this sort of threat. But what the Mountfield people did was a model of what to do. They formed a broadly-based group to mobilise opinion. They sent out flyers and newsletters. The drummed up signatures for a petition. They held a demonstration in Battle High Street, dressed in binliners and green hats and scarves. They put ads in the local papers and cultivated local journalists. They addressed all the surrounding parish councils. The councils themselves and Battle town council joined the fight. The Mountfield Heritage Group raised money with raffles, dinners, talks, fetes, mushroom hunts and the sale of T-shirts. They became familiar with the monstrous language and arcane detail of local government. Precise, planning-canny and articulate objections were lodged against the plans that the county council published, first in one and then another draft. With the money the group raised — the entire campaign cost B#40,000 ($75,000) in professional fees — they hired planning consultants, traffic consultants, landscape consultants and Tom Hill, a particularly marvellous, sharp-brained barrister (lawyer).

The core members of the group's steering committee, several of them mothers, fitting this in between running their families, were spending at least two days a week on it for the three central years of the campaign. They are two modest to be named, but I would if they would let me, as they are the completely unsung Erin Brockovitches of rural England.

"We never let ourselves think we would not win," one of them told me last week. "But it is not for the fainthearted. You can't slip up, you're up against the big boys, you have to be ahead of the game, you have to know what the process is, you have to keep the thing boiling in the public mind." These are the sorts of people who should be the new "people's peers".

Quite remarkably, what the Mountfield campaign revealed was that the entire basis for the county council's plans was flawed and shoddy. Two incinerators were planned for East Sussex, but a few calculations revealed that there was only need for one. The council hadn't established that there was enough room on the proposed site at Mountfield (there wasn't); hadn't established that the rail link could support the proposed traffic (it couldn't); hadn't established that the geology below the site could accommodate the proposed structures (it couldn't); hadn't thought whether its plans conformed with national guidance on waste and traffic (they didn't on either); and hadn't taken into account whether the proposal was even legal in terms of building in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (it wasn't).

After a long inquiry into the plan last year, and after the detailed report by the inspector, the council was left with nowhere to go. Real democracy and the rule of law had been made to work.

Finally, a few days ago, the council cabinet removed Mountfield from its plans. The Mountfield Heritage Group will be having a party next week — not a victory party, but a "relief party" — at its being over. There is no feeling of having won: they haven't.

East Sussex is far behind other counties in its recycling ideas, and other Sussex villages and towns are going to have landfill sites, incinerators and waste treatment plants landed on them. "It is sad," one of the Mountfield group said, "as we left the council offices for the last time, we saw the next lot beginning their long fight." But those extraordinary people on the planning committee see this as the beginning of a national movement, of local people standing up not just for the wellbeing of their own backyards, but for protecting objective social, landscape, and planning goods against powerful political and financial forces.

Mountfield now reckons it has some expertise in this kind of fight, and is keen to apply it on a wider scale. If you're in this kind of hole, you can contact them through <noincinerator@mountfield.net>."

-- Martin Ternouth (email)


This clipping is to open a discussion of land trusts responsible for holding and managing open space.

-- Edward Tufte




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