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Winning More Environmental Battles—and the Growth-Management War
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by Richard Klein | 2008

Think you are the most effective activist? Or do you simply want to learn how to become one? Learn about the most successful approaches when trying to win your environmental battles.

I thought I was a pretty effective environmental advocate.  After all, I’ve helped win some of the biggest battles in Maryland and elsewhere, though I’ve also lost a few. 

But I now know that the conventional approach I and most others use to fight these battles is flawed.  Fortunately, an alternative approach is available which is three times as successful in protecting the environment from poorly-planned projects. 

Each battle also offers an extremely important opportunity to increase the commitment of elected officials to responsible growth management.  This opportunity is mostly squandered through the conventional approach, which is also unduly expensive and leaves potential citizen leaders feeling jaded about grassroots advocacy.  The alternative approach provides elected officials with the political cover needed to stand strong.

So what is this alternative to the conventional approach?

Conventional Approach

The best way to describe the conventional approach is with an example.  Let’s say you learn that a housing or commercial project is planned next to your neighborhood, your favorite hiking trail, or threatens something else you cherish.  What’s the first action that comes to mind?  For most, the answer would be: Let’s hire a lawyer to stop the project.  That’s the conventional approach.

The attorney looks for the first opportunity to initiate legal action in hopes of stopping the project.  The legal action is successful about 1% of the time.  For the other 99% of cases the best outcome is usually a settlement negotiated with the applicant, but this comes after citizens have spent thousands of dollars.

Alternative Approach

With the alternative approach citizens first look for an equitable solution to each concern.  An equitable solution is one which fully resolves project impacts while allowing the applicant to get most of what they want.  For example, runoff pollution might be resolved through the use of more effective control measures.  Project plans can usually be modified to include these measures without forcing the applicant to eliminate houses or commercial floor-space.  In most instances an applicant will agree to an equitable solution to avoid two things: costly litigation and a reputation as being unresponsive to citizen concerns.  It has been my experience that most project impacts, though not all, can be resolved through an equitable solution.

Unfortunately most attorneys lack the technical expertise to identify equitable solutions.  And even if they were aware of such a solution, the expectation would be that the applicant would only agree after protracted litigation. 

Frequently we can negotiate a good agreement with an applicant or a regulatory agency early in most development battles.  Thus the equitable solution approach saves citizens a lot of money, time and frustration.  This is why it is so vitally important that citizens resist the temptation to immediately hire an attorney.  Also, it usually takes a fair bit of research to determine: a)if an attorney is  needed, and b) what type of attorney (zoning, environmental, etc.) is required.

Stopping Bad Projects

Some projects are so poorly conceived that equitable solutions simply do not exist.  This leaves no option but to stop the project. 

In this scenario, the alternative approach emphasizes political action over litigation to nix the project.  This is because public sentiment usually favors the citizen position, which gives us the advantage in a political arena.  Rest assured that there is almost always a way that decision-makers can resolve citizen concerns if they just have adequate political cover.  The applicant is better equipped to fight and win a long, expensive legal battle. 

Fighting bad projects in a political arena has another tremendous advantage over the conventional “litigation-only” approach: It educates lots of voters about what’s wrong with existing growth management programs and shows which of their elected officials are pro-development vs. pro-growth management.  


A well managed battle over a bad project can set the stage for:

  • forcing incumbent officials to do a better job of enforcing existing laws;
  • compelling the adoption of better laws; and
  • replacing pro-development incumbents with responsible growth management candidates come the next election.

But I don’t want to give the impression that legal action plays no role in the alternative approach.  It’s just that other options are exhausted before litigating. 

The alternative approach involves a smarter way of pursuing legal action.  Most projects require many permits and other approvals.  Each permit-approval varies with respect to the probability of success.  We first research the decision-making history regarding each permit-approval, then focus legal action on that which offers the highest probability of success at the least cost.  At that point we select an attorney who has expertise in that particular area of law plus a good record of success in representing citizens.  This alternative approach to litigation greatly increases the likelihood of victory while minimizing cost. 

Does the Alternative Approach Really Work?

Everyone has heard the phrase Smart Growth.  But you may not know that Smart Growth was a result one of the best examples of the alternative approach in action.  This example was the Sierra Club’s fight to save Chapman’s Forest in the mid-1990s. This campaign preserved 2,000 acres of highly-sensitive forest and wetlands while providing former Governor Glendening with the political cover needed to institute Smart Growth as statewide policy. 

For two decades I’ve been researching what approaches are most successful in protecting neighborhoods and the environment from growth impacts.  About three years ago I intensified this research and learned that about 40% of citizens use the conventional “Hire A Lawyer-Stop The Project” approach.  These citizens succeed in stopping about one out of every hundred projects and spend an average of $11,000.  Most of these citizens get very little for their money and time except a lot of frustration and a pretty poor opinion of grassroots advocacy.

Another 40% of citizens set the goal of resolving specific impacts through (what I call) equitable solutions.  These citizens win 25% of the time, spend very little money, and come away feeling good about advocacy.  I am convinced that the success rate for designing impacts out of projects could be tripled.  I also believe that full application of the alternative approach could increase the number of bad projects stopped by ten fold. 

Why do I believe this? 

Because this is the rate of success we help citizens achieve through the hundred or so campaigns we support around the nation every year.  And we always apply the alternative approach.

Taking Control of the Growth Management Agenda

Successful application of the alternative approach to just a few projects can set the stage for changing how growth is managed throughout a town, city or county.  With each battle more voters learn of shortcomings in local growth management laws and programs.  They also learn how both could be improved to reap the benefits of growth without sacrificing their quality of life.  Savvy citizen leaders can build on this base by expanding the education effort beyond the impact zone of specific projects.  The expanded effort should always begin with frequent voters.

As the phrase implies, frequent voters come to the polls just about every election.  They make up just 10% of the population but frequently determine who gets elected.  Frequent voters are also the people who tend to be most active in a community.  They are the folks who attend hearings, write letters, and contribute funds.  In other words, frequent voters are the best source of the volunteers and dollars needed to take control of the growth management agenda in your area.       

Where to Begin: You’re Not Alone

The preceding was a very simplified description of the alternative approach.  The detail needed to implement the approach is provided in How To Win Land Development Issues, a 300-page book available free for download on the CEDS website: 

Chapter 1: The Easy Solution, presents the five-step alternative approach.  Chapters 3 through 26 cover the 24 categories of impact caused by development: air quality, aquatic resources, schools, traffic, etc.  Methods for identifying and resolving most impacts can be found by consulting the chapter relevant to your concerns. 

Further advice is available free to those seeking to preserve neighborhoods or the environment.  Just contact me at 1-800-773-4571 or

A Few Good Sierrans Wanted

The Sierra Club used to be the go-to organization for citizens concerned about bad development and other environmental threats.  But during the five years I served as the Greater Baltimore group chair (2002-2005) we got maybe two or three calls from citizens looking for help despite numerous battles being waged throughout our service area.  From serving on the Sierra Club’s national sprawl committee for two years I know that the same is true for many groups elsewhere in the USA. 

I think the Club can recapture this critical role.  To do this we need, say, a half-dozen Sierrans spread throughout Maryland who understand how to use the alternative approach.  I believe that after a few successful demonstrations of this highly superior approach these Sierrans will become the go-to folks for all other citizens seeking help with bad development projects and other environmental threats. 

If you think you might like to become one of the few, the proud, the highly-effective advocates, contact me at or 410-654-3021.  After several two-hour workshops, you’ll be ready to go after your first win.  Thereafter I’ll be there to offer advice, help you get other support, and to join you for a beer while swapping war stories.      

> 2008 Table of Contents


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