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  • Writer's pictureMatt McDonald

5 Reasons Why NIMBYs Win, Part 1

Updated: Aug 29, 2019

The old adage that “you can’t fight city hall” is one of the biggest lies we tell ourselves in modern political life. Ordinary people beat city hall every day. In California, NIMBYs have become so successful at fighting city hall that they push our state closer every day toward an unprecedented economic calamity.

In a survey released earlier this year, 53% of all Californians want to leave the state. Millennial Californians want to leave at a rate of 63%. The reason for this exodus is California’s extraordinarily high cost of living, primarily fueled by the skyrocketing cost of housing. California’s future tax base is laid on precarious ground, yet there’s been little true political will to beating back the beast of NIMBYism that contributes to the problem.

So how is it that ragtag groups of neighbors and “regular folks” can band together and use people power to crush economic development in the nation’s most prosperous state? Many would say that the fact that ordinary people can turn back the tide of developers and corporations to any degree is wildly affirming for democracy. It’s hard to argue with that. NIMBYs aren’t always wrong on the merits of their fight – in fact they are often right on target. The rise of the anti-growth crusader is too often accompanied by a builder who misunderstands what is inescapable about development in California: land use IS politics. If you don’t view your project through a political lens, you’re toast. Maybe not today, but soon, and with devastating effect.

Rubicon Strategies has over 30 years combined experience in land use politics. We are strategists, lobbyists, communicators and grassroots organizers. In that time, we’ve seen over and over again why NIMBYs win and what causes builders to fail. Here are some of the things we’ve learned:


Any builder who has sat through a city council public hearing of one of their projects can tell you of the helpless feeling they get from listening to residents blasting their projects publicly, and then watching a succession of a dozen more residents echo the same sentiments. It’s even more painful when the criticisms that flow from their mouths are based on a poor understanding of the facts, embellishments or just flat out fabrications.

If you lie even once, your credibility is gone forever. NIMBYs can lie many times and suffer no consequences. Nobody said life is fair.

Hitting below the belt usually starts much earlier than any hearing, however. Under the California Environmental Quality Act, the planning approval process for major projects is very lengthy and has multiple phases of public input and involvement. Effective grassroots opposition campaigns leverage those phases as opportunities to poison the political and legal environment against your project. These are critical pressure points that can undermine your work as opponents get the opportunity to tell the rest of the community why your project is dangerous, each time growing the ranks of people who want to throw you out of town. They may not even need to mislead the community on the facts – if their audience is large enough and their megaphone loud enough even the best project conceived can be undone by a focused and organized grassroots opposition.

Builders also need to keep in mind that political organizing is cheaper than ever before. The ability to connect and communicate has been highly democratized and weaponized. We all know this because we see it every day in our political culture, but builders need to realize that the five city councilmembers who hold a projects’ fate in their hands were probably elected by a handful of votes. Many were elected in the first place on the promise of limiting growth. The cheap, easy grassroots campaign against new projects can very quickly intimidate a weak council member or embolden an elected who is already skeptical of your project.

NEXT WEEK #2: Builders often don’t commit to the political fight

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