Turn all your projects into Yes Projects
By Dan Depew
Business Development Manager
This one word is often the response to nearly every project proposal in the Hudson Valley.
Now let’s be clear; if you need a variance for a deck on your house or maybe a little-bit-bigger-than-it-should garage, you’re pretty good to proceed.
But if you want to build a shopping mall, hotel, theme park, warehouse, a housing subdivision or, well, anything interesting, then get ready to hear a resounding no from the local community. And that “no” won’t simply mean you can’t build. It will make you wish you never considered building.
I have more than 22 years of experience in government, and I’ve witnessed hundreds of what I’ve come to call No Projects, ones that died before they had a chance. I’ve also seen plenty of Yes Projects, and I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t, keeping mental notes on the topic of planning and development.
So let’s talk about all the wrong things and the right things I’ve seen developers, property owners, builders and project owners do, some dooming their projects to No, and others attaining the coveted Yes.
The No Projects I’ve seen all have a few things in common, most notably an optimistic but unprepared developer who gets hit with every possible curveball. They go wrong from the start, pushed out by an overconfident owner enabled by accommodating design professionals glad to draft anything for a fee. (The best design professionals will tell you what you don’t want to hear; bad ones don’t know and are as shocked as you are when things go bad; the worst know the project will fail but will nod their heads and stay silent, billing you the whole time.)
Meanwhile, many projects are quickly doomed because they pop up on a municipal meeting agenda seemingly out of nowhere, causing the public to come out half informed, loaded for bear and charged up on whatever NIMBY comments they read on Facebook.
And of course, sometimes the public is right. The worst No Projects of all threaten an irreplaceable natural resource or put a ton of traffic on a small road, and it’s projects like these that create the suspicion that all development is misplaced, harmful and unrealistic.
Wetlands, setbacks to the approval schedule, traffic studies, a bad plan, a bad project team or a weak municipal board will sink a project and ignite public opposition. Bad boards (thankfully these are rare), will capitulate to the pressure, finding a reason to reject a project because the opportunity to win over the community has been lost in Round 1.
And planning boards are smart. They follow the process to a tee and make sure all boxes are checked before anyone or anything moves forward – if they don’t, they and the municipality can be sued. But this drawn-out process is frustrating, and the whole time the anti-project crowd (which wants things summarily shut down), the board and the developers all seem to hate one another. It is the most uncomfortable thing to watch or be part of.
No Projects often ask for an array of zoning changes, variances, or environmental resource impacts. If you have truly decided that this property and project are a perfect fit and your message reflects that, then you look pretty bad when you need special considerations.
We call these “turns,” a phrase from the racetrack. Each time you make a turn you are slowed down, and most accidents happen coming into, going through, or coming out of a turn. Need a variance for sight distance? That’s a turn. Look for a project with no turns.
If turns are necessary, get out a calendar and double your time frame for expected approval and cost. Also, if you do move forward, reduce your odds of success by at least 30 percent or, most likely, 50 percent.
What to take from this? Reduce your turns. If you have too many, find a new track.
Good consultants and design professionals here in the Hudson Valley know how to navigate the local landscape, and it’s why Yes Project have the right team in place early on. In fact, your team should be assembled before you buy the land, or, if you already own it, your team should be involved in discussions about what to build on it.
A solid, successful team should include these people:
- A well-recognized and experienced commercial real-estate broker
These folks will steer you toward success because they get paid only if you succeed. Your broker needs experience in the municipality and a full understanding of zoning, wetlands, utilities and the neighborhood. Don’t leave this to your cousin who just got their real estate license. Hire the best you can find and make sure they will stand with you throughout that approval process.
- An attorney with a seasoned background in land use
You need one respected by the community, competent in land use law, and who is not currently (or recently) in a fight with the town. Sounds simple, but your usual attorney might not be the right face for this project. Also find an attorney who realizes they might not never need to speak at a meeting.
- An engineer with experience in the municipality
Be sure your engineer has ample time on their calendar for you, and the individual matters as much as, maybe even more than, the firm they’re from. They need the firm’s horsepower behind them, must understand a town’s nuances, and be able to cook a best project approach into the schedule.
- An environmental consultant
You’re looking for the person who is going to tell you what you don’t want to hear and anticipate the worst-case scenario. Ideally, they’re respected by the local, federal and state agencies you’ll be working with.
- A construction manager
Yup. I said it. Not a general contractor. A construction manager. In the past it was wise to assume that a GC approach worked and kept cost in check; the free market capitalist in all of us believes this. However, a general contractor brought in late can cause an adverse relationship between the design team and builder. During the planning process you don’t have plans, so selecting a general contractor is premature.
On the other hand, a CM can offer pre-construction advice and plan estimates and solutions early on, expediting solutions for site plan design, long lead time items selection and pre-purchase. They can also create a wider selection of subcontractors to help keep costs in line.
Lastly, the CM can be selected from the local area, and instead of one contractor performing all of sub trade work they’ll select from several in each trade, widening the base of your support pyramid.
Bring your team together early, seek their input, and, most importantly, hear their concerns.
This is harder than you might think. Developers and owners are smart and have had big wins, and it can be difficult to hear criticism. But past results don’t necessarily lead to future triumph. Each place, each time, is different.
Now that you have your team, listen to them. Watch how they interact, then appoint the person who will be your representative to the local board. The key voice.
In truth, I have seen this performed by all of the above, and yes, it can be you. (But if you pick yourself know this: No one is likely to challenge that decision and it might be a bad call.) Don’t let one member’s credentials or inside bullying sway your decision. The best key voice is the person who is the best fit for your project, in this particular place and at this time.
Lastly, as part of your team selection process, get a PLA in place. Project labor agreements are not for every project, but by starting out early with a PLA you can leverage the unions to give you reasonable terms, resulting in the best, most qualified workers and a deep, broad base of support. All of the above pays off.
The Power of Local Voices and Putting Your PLA to Work
When the crowds of locals show up to tell their municipal board against your project – and they will – you must have a solid group of their neighbors on your side.
Trying to motivate future employees to come to a public meeting to support your project is nearly impossible, but asking the trades to come out when you’ve already signed with them is a guarantee. The labor trades unions will have scores of people in your community, and No Projects wait until the last minute to engage these folks and by then it can be too late. The local power of local voices is the key to shutting down misinformed and misappropriated opposition.
Perhaps the most important thing of all is to get your message right. Overselling and over optimism won’t sway the crowd. Above all else, be honest. Projects get waylaid when the community discovers a gap in the truth. They use these gaps to question everything about a project. Thinking you can control the message or keep a project a secret is impossible, and quite frankly it always blows up in someone’s face.
Make your team, trust your team, deliver a strong message, and engage with associations, partnerships, chambers and governmental offices, and your next project will be a Yes Project.
This article appeared in the Spring | Summer 2022 issue of “On the Level” magazine.