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philip
05-26-2006, 04:23 PM
From a national perspective, the 1980s and 1990s were the Belle ?poque -- the beautiful age -- of commercial development, a time when getting project approval could be as simple as shaking the right hand or making the right campaign donation. And Americans were all for it, ready to embrace the next mall or Home Depot or Starbucks Coffee outlet that gave them easy access to consumer products.

Mike Saint was there for it and remembers when making proposed developments reality was simple.






No more.

"At a conference in 2004, I heard a developer say 'Up until 1999, anything I wanted to do was built,' " says Saint. "Since then, 45 percent of his projects get shot down -- and he only develops in Nebraska."

Saint's company, The Saint Consulting Group in Hingham, works to get developments approved or nixed, depending on the client. The firm has released a study quantifying such as the Nebraska anecdote that confirms what most developers and commercial real estate insiders suspect: Many Americans oppose new development of some kind.

The Saint Group commissioned The Center for Economic and Civic Opinion at the University of Massachusetts Lowell to administer the study, which includes responses from 1,000 people from all parts of the country, in November 2005.

The results show 73 percent of Americans say their community is fine the way it is or that it's overdeveloped. More than 80 percent say they don't want new development in their communities.

And those most likely to oppose new development tend to be suburban homeowners between the ages of 36 and 55, with annual family incomes over $50,000 and high levels of education -- in other words, those who are likely living in safe, attractive, mid- to upper-middle class neighborhoods with access to efficient government services and plenty of high-end shopping.

NIMBY-ism -- "Not In My Back Yard" -- isn't new, but the numbers of people engaging in active protests against new developments represents a shift in activism.

"If you don't do anything, two-thirds of the people will be against you," says Saint of developers. "No matter what a politician promises you in a back room, he's going to change his mind when hundreds of citizens show up at a meeting to protest a development," adds Saint.

Saint says that in 1984, when he began working in land use politics, he encountered opposition to development primarily in Massachusetts and California.

Now, opposition is as likely to hit the South, where quarries consume much of Saint's corporate energy, and the Midwest, as on the coasts, where retail projects still draw public ire.

Across the board, projects most likely to receive support are single-family homes and grocery stores. On the other end of the spectrum, landfills, casinos, power plants and quarries draw the most opposition. Wal-Mart stores and large shopping centers rank in the 40th percentile for opposition.

"I don't think there is any doubt neighborhood groups have a much more heightened awareness of what's going on, but that's a good thing," Craig Laine, director of development for Highwoods Properties in Raleigh, N.C.

Despite activism, cynicism about government and public officials permeates perceptions of the development process. Saint Index research shows 70 percent of respondents believe relationships between government officials and developers render the approval process unfair.

Laine says the approval process has become more complex over the last 20 years, but he sees it as a natural outgrowth of development.

"Municipalities have brought on new and more restrictive ordinances that we just have to accept as America gets denser," he says. "I think communities want development still, but it's a harder process."

Saint intends for the recent benchmark survey to become an annual statistical event.