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What to do When Developers come to Call?

Posted by attorney Dotty Lemieux

You have just learned that a developer has submitted plans for a 1200 unit development on the old dairy farm. You’re outraged that a neighborhood greenbelt will now be covered with Mc Mansions. You worry about traffic impacts and the fate of the historic oak trees that cover the property. Is there anything you and your neighbors can do? You might call your County Supervisor. You might write letters to the editor or chain yourself to a fence in front of the site. You might bring in the Ruckus Society to lead a protest march. Or hire a pit bull attorney to sue everyone in sight. You might simply tear your hair out in frustration. Or you could bring on board a seasoned land use lawyer who is also versed in grassroots political action and lobbying techniques. Someone who can draft an effective legal response to an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and represent you and your neighbors before the Planning Commission. Someone who can also help your group organize, build support for the cause and let the local politicians know you mean business. A Mutli-modal Approach to Environmental Problems: You’ve heard the term multi-modal in the context of technology and transit planning. But it applies just as well in the community environmental arena. Let me explain. Community groups shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time a developer or big box retailer comes calling. A multi-modal approach using law and political action can provide you time proven techniques to help you win your environmental battles. Over the years, I have learned techniques for working with neighborhoods and community groups beyond legal representation. My practice has grown as a result into three distinctive realms: 1) Public Interest Law: representing citizen and environmental groups in public hearings, reviewing and commenting on EIR’s and litigating environmental cases; advising clients in First Amendment petition rights and election law; drafting initiatives and referenda. 2) Campaign Consulting for Candidates and Issues: strategic campaign planning, reviewing issues and crafting a message for voters and ensuring the message is delivered effectively 3) Activist Training: providing the tools necessary for your group to influence public opinion, lobby elected officials and wage an effective campaign for your cause In the context of a community environmental issue, these three realms all contribute to a successful outcome. Having someone who understands both the law and the politics involved early on in the process is crucial. Using a multi-modal approach allows you to tackle the issues of strategic planning, coalition building and fundraising while addressing the fine legal points in the environmental review process. Lobbying officials and “speaking truth to power" are also crucial in waging a battle that will affect your community and quality of life. Remember, an environmental legal battle IS a political campaign. The Advantages of Multi-modal Environmental Action: Using a multi-modal approach can avoid unnecessary litigation by involving an experienced land use attorney who is also skilled in campaign and lobbying techniques. In this way, you magnify your clout and make the decision-makers sit up and take notice of your cause. In preventing a planned doubling of San Quentin Prison, an ad hoc group deposited thousands of signatures on the desk of the President of the Board of Supervisors demanding the EIR be reopened for failure to properly notice the local community (a legal position). The result was a withdrawal of County support, which caused the State to abandon its plans altogether (a political outcome). Using grassroots techniques to take the message to both the public and the decision-makers avoided costly litigation. This approach also offers opportunity for collaboration between grassroots activists and legal professionals to strengthen the position of both. A successful lawsuit to stop local jail construction led to a successful campaign to preserve the land from future construction in Marin County. Citizens used a lobbying and public relations campaign to piggyback on their legal arguments to derail piecemeal construction of cell phone towers in rural Mendocino County. In McCloud, California, a successful lawsuit challenging the legality of a contract with the giant Nestle Corporation for sale of water rights dovetailed with Citizen action to keep the project in the public’s eyes and wage a strong grass roots campaign. This office has been working with community groups, training activists and waging legal battles for more than 20 years. Many of the candidates I have helped elect have come from these environmental campaigns. When environmental and community activists run for office, the effects of this work are far reaching and very rewarding for all concerned.

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