Citizen's Primer for Conservation Activism

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Citizen's Primer for Conservation Activism

How to Fight Development in Your Community

By Judith Perlman

Written by a successful activist, Citizen’s Primer for Conservation Activism takes you through all the steps necessary to stop unplanned development in your community.



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5.5 x 8.5 | 179 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-70290-5

Is there anything you can do when development threatens your local forest, beach, prairie, or wetland? Yes, there is. Across America, citizen activists are fighting and winning battles against unwanted development in their own communities. To help you resist the urban sprawl and absentee landowners that can wreck small towns and cities alike, this book is a practical, hands-on guide for building a grassroots campaign to defeat undesirable development.

Written by a successful activist, Citizen's Primer for Conservation Activism takes you through all the steps necessary to stop unplanned development in your community:

  • Identifying the issues at stake
  • Getting involved and developing leadership
  • Devising a strategy
  • Hiring and working with legal counsel
  • Building coalitions and partnerships
  • Influencing local government
  • Conducting a media campaign
  • Raising money
  • Countering developer tactics
  • Managing the whole process

With the proven strategies in this easy-to-access book, you can quickly gear up to challenge unwanted development and preserve the character of your local community.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: Identify the Issues (Knowledge Is Power)
  • Chapter Two: Get Involved (One Person Can Do a Lot)
  • Chapter Three: Devise a Strategy (Which Way Should We Go?)
  • Chapter Four: Hire Counsel ("The First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers")
  • Chapter Five: Build a Coalition and Partnerships (Strange Bedfellows)
  • Chapter Six: Influence Local Government (Meetings, Meetings, Meetings)
  • Chapter Seven: Conduct a Media Campaign (Opening Pandora’s Box)
  • Chapter Eight: Fund-raising (Money Makes the World Go 'Round)
  • Chapter Nine: Opposing the Developer (Bluster, Bully, and Bluff)
  • Chapter Ten: Managing the Process (Roller-coaster Ride)
  • Index

This book is written for you . . .

If you are frustrated at seeing unwanted development threaten your community.

If you are sick of seeing your taxes increase to pay for all the services needed by so much "progress."

If the high point of your day is seeing a great blue heron wade in a stream or a red fox cross the road.

If you cherish a scenic view of a lake or meadow on your morning walk or evening commute.

If you want to preserve a woodlot, creek, or wetland for your children to explore.

If you value darkness so that you can see the night sky.

If you mourn the loss of quiet and solitude.

If you are frustrated at urban sprawl and the traffic, noise, and pollution it brings.

If you are angry that out-of-town landowners control the future of your neighborhood.

If you are "mad as hell" and don't want to take it anymore.

This book is written for you, if you want to do something about it but do not know what to do or where to start.

You can do something. More and more, individuals are fighting to protect the communities they inhabit and love. To an ordinary citizen trying to stop the steamroller of development, the force of big money allied with government may seem unstoppable. But just as David slew Goliath, individuals and small groups of citizens are challenging these forces and winning. Each time this happens, I think of it as a miracle—a miracle of hard work, a miracle of democracy, a miracle of free press, sometimes just a miracle.

These victories are all the more miraculous because there is little support for citizens who want to take on The System by fighting development and the reaches of government that support development. For each of these skirmishes, citizens are making it up as they go along. Primarily local in nature, land battles are fought in isolation, without the experience or support of others who have done it before. There's no how-to manual on what to do and what to expect, on what works and what does not work. Every land battle has unique elements—distinctive personalities, different laws and regulations, local politics, and its own historical context. Yet there are also common themes and lessons to these David-against-Goliath battles that are occurring in communities throughout the country.

This book is for ordinary citizens who want to do something. It is my intention to provide a handbook of practical information on how to fight unwanted development in your community. It is intended to give you an outline of what to do and what to expect if you get involved in a development fight. Often, there is tremendous time pressure and the need to learn fast and act fast. I wrote this book intending that people might read and absorb it quickly. The book is for strategizing around the kitchen table, not ponderous research. It is meant to provide a lot of ideas but cannot possibly cover every issue in every situation. Rather, it is a starting point to get you in and get you going. You will have to research the facts and devise the strategy that's right for your unique situation. But this book does provide a framework for addressing your situation and determining whether you can buck The System. In many circumstances, you can. You can make a miracle happen in your backyard.

Everybody has a story, and this is mine. The observations and examples in this book are based on my own experience in three different land battles, all of which occurred in Wisconsin. The themes of each land battle, however, are familiar everywhere. In order for you to get the most from the examples in the book, it will help to know my background. Throughout the book, I refer to these three land battles as "Fischer Creek," " Point Creek," and "Hika Conservancy." I hope that you will be able to identify with facets of my story.

I moved to the Village of Cleveland, Wisconsin, for its quiet rural beauty, undeveloped Lake Michigan shoreline, and low-stress lifestyle. I came to this village, located 66 miles north of Milwaukee, by way of a stressful career in Chicago. First a lawyer, then a business executive for the derivatives trading unit of an international bank, I found my life was a pressure cooker. I faced long hours, international travel, and the intense stress of working for options traders who made million-dollar decisions in a matter of seconds. On the personal front, my health was not strong. I never fully recovered from a serious car accident several years earlier, and my recurrent health problems caused me to be hospitalized regularly. While I was in the hospital, I worked; after my discharge, I continued to work. Work defined my life.

Now, my former life sounds ghastly. But at the time, walking away from my career and familiar life in Chicago was the hardest decision I had ever made. I purchased my cottage in Cleveland in the spring of 1994 as a weekend house to escape the rat race. I soon concluded that this little village of approximately thirteen hundred people was an undiscovered jewel. Mainly a bedroom community for the neighboring small cities of Manitowoc to the north and Sheboygan to the south, Cleveland had quiet historic neighborhoods, creeks and woodlots, weekend cottages on breathtaking Lake Michigan views, and surrounding homestead dairy farms.

By the end of August 1994, I had decided to make Cleveland my permanent home. I had found a time and place to heal and rest. I gave my employer two weeks' notice after Labor Day, put my condo on the market, and arrived the third week in September, ready to plant my garden, watch the birds, and take long walks on country roads and sandy beaches. My biggest project was finding a puppy.

The story of Fischer Creek

The week I arrived to begin my new "permanent" life in Cleveland, I saw a public notice posted at the Cleveland post office for a Cleveland Plan Commission meeting to discuss "Hika Cove." I had heard rumors that someone was proposing a condominium development along Lake Michigan just north of Cleveland in the Town of Centerville, in an area locally referred to as "Fischer Creek." I wondered if "Hika Cove" referred to that condominium project.

I had never been to a plan commission meeting—or any local government meeting, for that matter. On a whim, I decided to attend along with a friend who had a weekend home on the beach. There were about a dozen other people in the audience. We did not know another soul. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss a planned unit development to be located at Fischer Creek.

Fischer Creek encompassed approximately 130 acres of undeveloped land, including wetland, bluff, meadow, and woodland—habitat for numerous plant and animal species. The creek itself is classified as a Class I trout stream by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, a designation recognizing high water quality and habitat for spawning lake trout and salmon. The entire parcel contains a meandering creek, prominent dunes that elongate in a direction perpendicular to Lake Michigan, and almost a mile of undeveloped Lake Michigan beach. The area is home to four major wetland communities—sedge meadow, bluff seeps, shrub swamp, and wood swamp. There are three major upland communities—old-field community, successional forest, and mature upland forest. Although privately owned by an out-of-state landowner for years, Fischer Creek had been used and appreciated by area residents for its excellent fishing, sandy beaches, varied habitat, and remote location.

At the plan commission meeting were the chairman and members of the plan commission; the village president, Gary Schmitz; and a developer from Chicago, Gerald Fogelson. It was obvious to me that Fogelson was a city slicker, in spite of the fact that he had "dressed down" for the occasion. In a deliberately casual crewneck sweater, khaki pants, and leather tassled loafers, he had shed his suit and tie to become a local "good old boy" for the evening.

Fogelson had a simple layout for a proposed planned unit development for the Fischer Creek area, which subdivided the bluff and lake frontage into a long, narrow row of lots lined up side by side like soldiers in formation. The terrain of the landscape was completely unconsidered in the preliminary site plan. It was apparent that he had invested almost nothing in his design plans. He proposed a 150-unit gated community, primarily second homes and condominiums for affluent Chicago and Milwaukee residents. According to Fogelson, lots would be priced from $150,000 to $450,000, and there would be strict architectural standards for houses built. Schmitz nodded his head approvingly.

The developer's timetable called for the village to make fast approvals and for construction to begin in a few months. He wanted to break ground that winter. He left the impression that the houses would sell like hotcakes, the development would assuredly be a big success, and Cleveland would benefit immeasurably from the addition of Hika Cove. In short, Fogelson was coming to town and throwing money at us. All we had to do was catch it.

Fischer Creek is located in the Town of Centerville. The Village of Cleveland was involved because Fogelson needed annexation of the land from Centerville to the village. Without Cleveland's sewer and water services, the proposed development would have to use septic, mound, or holding tanks for sanitary services, and wells for water. This was not optimal for upper-income housing. Also, Centerville's zoning regulations mandated lower density than Cleveland's planned unit development zoning category. It is generally the case that developers want to build as many units as they can in a given location, and Fogelson was no exception. At the meeting, Fogelson, Schmitz, and others talked as though approval of the development were a "done deal."

I was appalled at the proposal, as well as at the seemingly cavalier way that the village was about to approve this decision. The other residents at the meeting were similarly upset, and we agreed to meet again later that week. The following Saturday, we gathered at the local diner, where about a dozen neighbors expressed concern, anger, and frustration. Some people opposed the development for environmental reasons; others were concerned about what this would do to the character of the community. Still others wanted more information before making up their minds. Everyone was upset by the village's intention to "railroad" an approval on a short timetable without public input. At the time, I did not label myself an environmentalist, but I could see that such a development would have a huge effect on the village in many ways. This one development would increase by 50 percent the number of residences in Cleveland. I wanted to slow down the process and get some answers. I believed that the citizens should be heard on the issue. It was incredible to me that a few village "fathers" could ram a change of this magnitude through without holding public hearings and considering the will of the community.

Thus began the Friends of Fischer Creek and our yearlong odyssey to fight "Hika Cove" and preserve Fischer Creek in its natural state. The initial concerns of a few citizens became a bitter community battle.

On the political front, the developer needed to annex the land from Centerville to Cleveland, which required a two-thirds affirmative vote of the Village of Cleveland Board of Trustees. Residents of Cleveland were divided on the issue of annexation. Those in favor of the development believed it would help the tax base and help pay for a newly mandated wastewater treatment plant, as well as represent "progress" for the village. Centerville did not want to lose a big piece of land (and tax base) to Cleveland, and had important interests in the conflict as well. For the most part, the Friends of Fischer Creek were allied with many residents of Centerville to defeat the annexation. However, like the village, the town was also divided. Whereas many town residents did not want to cede a big piece of land to the village, or, for environmental reasons, did not want to see Fischer Creek developed, there were those who, for the added tax base, wanted the development to occur in the town rather than in the village.

In addition to local politics, money soon became an important issue. Even if we defeated the annexation at this time, the issue would return again and again as development pressures pushed up the lakefront. In defeating one petition for annexation, we were not assured of continued success as petition after petition was filed seeking to annex and develop for profit this highly desirable parcel. The law of odds made it almost inevitable that a developer would appear with enough money and power to succeed. Therefore, the only way to preserve Fischer Creek permanently was to buy it. Now the Friends of Fischer Creek were faced with the struggle to amass the $1.3 million needed to purchase it. Back in 1994, that amount of money could best be raised in a short time frame from the government. Consequently we became embroiled in state and county financial and political matters as well.

When I moved to Cleveland, I had no idea I would spend the next twelve months on a conservation battle against local politicians and Chicago developers. It was not the relaxing, bucolic life I had signed up for. But I viewed defense of those values as an investment that would benefit me for the rest of my life.

Due to the strenuous efforts of a lot of people—and some incredible luck—we defeated the annexation, at the same time raising $1.3 million for the State of Wisconsin to purchase Fischer Creek for a new State Conservation Area. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, in a check signed by then governor Tommy Thompson, awarded a one-million-dollar stewardship fund grant toward the purchase. Manitowoc County (through some clever internal political maneuvering by our supporters) approved $300,000 to complete the transaction. Fischer Creek became a model in the State of Wisconsin for a state-local conservation partnership in which Manitowoc County, pursuant to a written management agreement, manages land in conservation owned by the state.

Today, you can travel to southeastern Manitowoc County and visit the Fischer Creek Conservation Area. You can fish for trout off the 150-year-old iron bridge spanning the creek near its mouth at Lake Michigan. You can walk pristine sandy beaches and cool off on a sweltering summer day. You can set up a scope and watch the migrating red-throated loons in early spring. You can walk a trail through dense woods and listen to the wind and waves. Fischer Creek is preserved forever for all people to enjoy. I talk to visitors at Fischer Creek and tell them the story of the fight for Fischer Creek. I let them know that they are walking on a miracle.

The story of Point Creek

In the years following Fischer Creek, I was not involved in any major conservation issues. I served on the village board for a few months to fill a vacancy, but the service did not suit me. I struggled with more health problems. I became a member of the Village of Cleveland and Town of Centerville Joint Plan Commission, on which Cleveland and Centerville worked together to create a joint land-use plan. This cooperation between neighboring municipalities on a land-use plan was groundbreaking in Wisconsin. The work was alternately exciting and tedious, but we did succeed in creating a joint plan and joint land-use district maps that both town and village enacted. Tensions sometimes run high between town and village, but we are proud to have created land-use districts that were defined at least in part by the actual land configuration and historic use, not by municipal boundaries.

In 1999 my friend Rolf Johnson lured me onto the board of the local land conservancy. Rolf had been one of the key leaders of the Friends of Fischer Creek. Back then Rolf articulated a vision to preserve an extended watershed of approximately fifteen hundred acres, north and west of Fischer Creek, through a combination of public land and private conservation easement. He wanted to create a biological island out of the Great Lakes Watershed, which in his opinion was of tremendous scientific and social importance, given the necessity of clean, fresh water for the world. During the fight for Fischer Creek, Rolf promoted this vision, but most of us put our immediate attention on what needed to be done to preserve Fischer Creek. When we were done, we were all exhausted and had no energy left for tackling a new project. We needed to rest, and the community needed to heal.

After several years' respite, I thought it might be time to think about Rolf's vision. I was willing to "stick my toe in the water"—that's it!—in terms of commitment to another conservation project.

Inspired by what we did at Fischer Creek, several citizens in Sheboygan (ten miles south of Cleveland) formed the Sheboygan Area Land Conservancy. Their mission was to preserve open space in the counties of Sheboygan, Manitowoc (where Fischer Creek is), and Fond du Lac, primarily through the tool of conservation easement, which is a voluntary arrangement between a landowner and a land conservancy providing for permanent conservation of land.

At Rolf's request, and after meeting with me, the land conservancy board welcomed me as a new member. I do not like meetings and was not looking for a big commitment. The land conservancy board was a pleasant, low-key group, and I thought I could handle one meeting a month in that setting. After my contentious and exhausting experience with Fischer Creek, I found the land conservancy appealing because conservation easements involve collaborating one-on-one with landowners who have a conservation ethic and are preserving their land voluntarily and happily. No more battles! I was looking to work with a few Manitowoc County landowners in the nearby Lake Michigan Watershed.

A few months after I joined the land conservancy board, we learned that an out-of-state landowner filed a variance request with Manitowoc County for an extended cul-de-sac at Point Creek. The landowner needed the road to facilitate a seventeen-lot subdivision of upscale homes. Point Creek is about two miles north of Fischer Creek, and the other "jewel in the crown" of Rolf's vision for a biological island along the shores of Lake Michigan.

The Point Creek parcel is thirty-nine acres, with twenty-seven hundred feet of pristine Lake Michigan beach and contains the tallest sand dunes in Manitowoc County, as well as estuary, bluff, coastal canyon, beach, meadow, and pinewoods. Numerous scientific studies had attested to the habitat and unusual geological and biological features of the site, and had identified it as an important stopping point for migratory birds on the Lake Michigan flyway. Point Creek is also home to a large congregation (more than a hundred individuals) of great blue herons that use the site as their primary habitat during the spring and summer months after they fledgling their young.

Moreover, Point Creek adjoins two other pieces of land already in conservation; if we were able to save the Point Creek parcel, the total land in conservation would be 138 contiguous acres, including 4,400 feet of Lake Michigan shoreline and 1,000 feet of creek bank.

Initially, Rolf was spearheading the effort to save Point Creek. Despite the obvious conservation values of the site, I was a reluctant participant. Out of loyalty to Rolf and some commitment to the cause, I participated, but in a far more limited way than for Fischer Creek, which I had thrown myself into heart and soul.

For many reasons, I just did not feel committed to the parcel in the same way as for Fischer Creek. A lot of the fight for Fischer Creek had to do with enabling democracy and ensuring community participation in decisions affecting our future. I became conservation-minded during my work on Fischer Creek, but my reasons for participation were never just about conservation. Also, Point Creek was geographically further from me, and the struggle appeared to be mainly about raising money, a task I did not relish. By early 2000 I had just started a business, and my time and energy were committed to that venture. Finally, I did not see much chance of success in saving Point Creek. The landowner wanted an exorbitant price for the land—$1.9 million. Times had changed, and the era of 100 percent financing from the state was over. It would be much tougher to raise the money, and a significant portion would have to come from the private sector. I did not see it happening in a community of old-line manufacturing firms and small dairy farms.

Rolf, however, is a perennial optimist and an ace fund-raiser. Rolf and I, along with Mike Sorenson, the cochairman of the land conservancy, made a presentation at the West Foundation, a philanthropic organization serving Manitowoc County. The West Foundation had never funded a land-conservation project before, but we gave it our best shot. To my surprise, we received a $250,000 two-for-one matching grant. We would receive $250,000 from the West Foundation if we raised another $500,000 in donations and pledges. That was great, but where in the world would we come up with another $500,000?

Largely through Rolf's efforts and connections and because of an anonymous $200,000 donation we received, we met the terms of the grant, to my amazement. A war chest of $750,000—even though mostly pledges—is impressive fund-raising in Manitowoc County. But we still had $1.25 million to go. Rolf requested a grant from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Stewardship Program, which could potentially provide up to 50 percent of the DNR-appraised value of the land. We commissioned two appraisals for the DNR grant. Both came in significantly lower than the landowner's $1.9 million demand. Even if we got a grant from the DNR, we were still going to be short by $600,000.

Then Rolf received a cancer diagnosis. He went from fighting for Point Creek to fighting for his life. As I looked at the other members of the land conservancy board, it was obvious that no one could take up leadership on Point Creek. Rolf was so committed to Point Creek that I thought the outcome might be a matter of life and death for him. I did not want him to worry about Point Creek while he was battling cancer, so I agreed to take it on and see what I could do.

The task was overwhelming, and I proposed a consulting arrangement with the land conservancy board so that I could be paid something for my efforts. I simply could not afford to abandon my new business for months with no alternate source of income. The task at hand required a sophisticated skill set using my experience in law and business and would be tremendously time-consuming. It was not inappropriate, I concluded, for the organization to pay something for the time and talent that was needed to run the project. The land conservancy had no paid employees, so this was a first step for them in terms of working with a professional staff person.

The Department of Natural Resources came through with an initial allocation of $600,000, subject to further approvals. I managed to identify, write, and win additional grants giving us sufficient funds to meet the owner's $1.9 million price. During the state's 2002 budget crisis, we waged a major lobbying effort in Madison to keep the stewardship grant that we had been awarded.

Meanwhile, we had problems on the other side of the transaction, in terms of negotiating a purchase agreement for the property. The landowner, a Colorado family partnership represented by Stan Lee, refused to budge on the asking price and was actively shopping the parcel to other purchasers, as well as regularly threatening to "bring in the bulldozers." Stan also had a tendency to terminate negotiations regularly and required an enormous amount of "hand-holding." He doubted we were a viable purchaser because we had not come up with the money in over a year, yet we also seemed to be his best chance of getting his $1.9 million.

Peter Mayer, the lawyer who represented the Friends of Fischer Creek, agreed to negotiate with and handle Stan. Peter had the daunting task of alleviating Stan Lee's considerable anxiety, building credibility for the land conservancy as a viable purchaser—even as we scrambled for funds—and reaching a legal agreement that would satisfy Stan, protect the land conservancy and pass muster with two different government agencies that award grants.

We had a lot of ups and downs finalizing the purchase. But on June 19, 2002, the governor of Wisconsin, Scott McCallum, came to Cleveland to dedicate Point Creek Conservation Area, purchased with $1.4 million in state and federal money, and $500,000 in private donations. If you visit southeastern Manitowoc County, in Wisconsin, you can visit the Point Creek Natural Area and see scientists from three partnering universities conducting field research, watch more than a hundred great blue herons fledgling their young, and sight an occasional bald eagle. How did we pull it off? A lot of hard work by a few people, and some more luck. Another miracle.

The ongoing story of Hika Conservancy

As I was working furiously on Point Creek, developers bought a parcel of land near and dear to my heart. The Hika (pronounced High-Kah) Conservancy parcel is only 150 feet from my property. It borders the property of my next-door neighbor and extends to Centerville Creek and Hika Park on the other side. The initial proposal was for thirty-six condominiums. Of all the projects I had worked on, this was the first that was truly in my backyard!

The four-acre Hika Conservancy land included 535 feet of sandy Lake Michigan beach, a ridge and swale dune formation, wetland, a wooded area, and a meadow. The beach is accessible without traversing a bluff, which is unusual on this side of Lake Michigan. Despite its small acreage, Hika Conservancy is host to numerous migratory birds and animals and is part of the Centerville Creek Watershed. Several state and scientific studies have identified important aspects of the land.

Hika Park is Cleveland's only park on Lake Michigan and is known mainly for its boat ramp, used by area fishermen. A small beach adjoins the boat ramp, but the area is too small to accommodate both swimmers and boaters safely. As the population grows, Hika Park will be wholly inadequate in a few years. I envision people crammed into little Hika Park, while a vast expanse of beach remains unused by all except a handful of beachfront landowners. Many residents of the Hika neighborhood around the park have an alternate vision in which the undeveloped land is added to Hika Park. In that scenario, present residents and future generations will have public access to the beach and to a natural area for observation of wildlife and passive recreation.

Initially, the developers who purchased Hika Conservancy floated a proposal for a thirty-six-unit condominium development. After the community protested and village officials took a close look at the ordinances, the developers abandoned that proposal. They returned with a vague proposal for lower-density "townhouse condominiums" and filed a formal petition to change the zoning. The developers never offered a site plan and never proposed a specific number of units. They wanted to develop, in their own words, "as many as the site will allow."

Hika Park is located in Cleveland's historic Hika neighborhood. Featuring nineteenth-century cream brick homes, a few old businesses, and lakefront cottages, the neighborhood includes an active local history group, which studies and cherishes the history of Hika and even contemplated getting the neighborhood designated a historic preservation area. It is a close community of single-family residences in which children fish off the bridge and play in the streets and people don't lock their doors. The Hika neighborhood was clearly opposed to the incursion of condominiums owned by non-permanent residents, but members of the village board valued the potential tax base more than preservation of the neighborhood.

Although my heart was in Hika, my time was largely committed to Point Creek. My next-door neighbors, Otto and Laurel Wimpffen, agreed to take the lead. As neighbors to the site, they had the biggest interest and the most to lose, as well as certain legal rights afforded to contiguous landowners affected by a petition for rezoning. Otto and Laurel live in Chicago and use their cottage in Cleveland on weekends. However, they intend to retire here in a few years and are interested in issues affecting the community that would someday be their permanent home.

As a full-time resident and a neighbor, I served as a liaison between the Wimpffens and the community. I attended meetings in Cleveland, talked to village board members and employees, and helped organize community support against the zoning change, while at the same time keeping abreast of the Wimpffens' legal research and strategy.

The fight for the Hika Conservancy is continuing. The battle occurred first on the legal front, with Otto and Laurel hiring Peter Mayer to represent their interests. It was an expensive proposition for the couple, because counsel is not cheap. However, I am convinced that it was mainly their commitment that deterred the developers from pursuing either condominiums or townhouses on the site. We reduced our "worst-case scenario" from thirty-six condominium units to five or six single-family homes. In terms of consistency with the historic Hika neighborhood, the community could live with the latter.

However, many of us wanted to see the lakeshore in public rather than private hands. Therefore, we encouraged the village to buy the conservancy as an extension of Hika Park. It is interesting that, in many communities, lake property owners band together to keep the public off "their" beaches. In Cleveland, almost all the lakeshore owners are encouraging public access to the beach. Nonetheless, convincing village board members to forgo short-term tax revenues for the long-term benefits of maintaining public access to the lakefront was an uphill battle.

Through both expensive lawyering and grassroots politicking, we made tremendous progress on the issue. When the developers first proposed condominiums, the board rejected a proposal to purchase the Hika Conservancy and went so far as to pass a resolution stating that they would never discuss the issue again. Less than a year later, the board voted to explore purchasing the land; six months later they had entered into an agreement with the developers to purchase the land as a park and applied for several government grants.

The problem then turned from political to economic—finding the money. Because of the legal barriers to a zoning change (which would permit higher density on the parcel), the developers are willing sellers—for now. I doubt that they have suddenly become "tree huggers." Rather, they probably see purchase by the village of the entire parcel as the fastest way for them to recoup their money and move on. Whether the village can raise the money, about $530,000, and stay committed to the purchase remains to be seen. If the purchase fails, we return to a political fight on zoning and appropriate use for the neighborhood.

Land battles share common issues.

While each of my land battles—and yours—involves different facts, there are many common issues and problems.

You are dealing with multiple personalities and parties, including the landowner; the developer (who may or may not be the same person as the landowner); and various boards, committees, agencies, and commissions of local, state, and even federal government.

You are dealing with complex issues involving land-use ordinances, zoning changes, site plan development, annexation and civil procedure, and business and economic issues concerning developer financing, tax base, and cost of services.

You will be engaged in fund-raising, from soliciting small amounts to fund your operating expenses, to larger amounts to cover legal fees and other professional services, up to multimillion-dollar sums to fund land acquisition. You may be writing grants and working through complicated requirements for federal, state, or endowment funding.

You will come up against vested interests in government and business. You may have to speak out at public meetings or fight for the attention of public officials.

You will be dealing with lawyers, both your own and those on the other side.

You will have to build a coalition and find partners.

You will be dealing with the press, including newspaper reporters and editors.

What is in this book?

This book offers practical insight and examples for dealing with the many issues common to land battles in different communities.

Chapter 1 discusses the information you will need to embark on a land battle. It will help you determine whether or not you have any basis to challenge development and where to go from there. It sets forth a lot of specific issues for you to think about and research, from tax consequences and the economic effects of development, to habitat preservation and the economic value of open space. This chapter suggests where to get that information, such as from local government, state government, universities, not-for-profit conservation organizations, lawyers, developers, and planners. It also sets forth some of the legal issues you may need to understand, such as required government procedures relating to open meetings, postings, time periods, and public hearings; rights of neighbors for zoning changes; state and local issues relating to annexation; preliminary plat requirements; setback and shoreline ordinances; and other environmental regulations. Finally, it encourages you to ask a lot of questions and to question all the information you do gather.

Chapter 2 is for people who are not sure they can accomplish anything on their own. It provides information and examples of just how much one person or a small group can do. In a democracy, individuals are afforded many rights, such as gathering information, attending public meetings, speaking publicly, lobbying, writing letters, petitioning, distributing leaflets, hiring a lawyer, raising money, and contacting the media. It encourages a good hard look at what motivates you and gives a realistic appraisal of the time and energy required in such an undertaking. This chapter also discusses some of the other resources you may need and gives examples of the kinds of information an individual can get and how that information can be used in your land battle. It discusses how a leadership circle will naturally form, so that you will not be working alone for long, and concludes with some examples of how just a few people achieved major victories in fighting development.

Chapter 3 deals with the critical task of devising a strategy, giving examples from other land battles. It posits the importance of strategy in providing focus for your time and effort, which can otherwise be dissipated on nonproductive matters. It also suggests action steps for implementing your chosen strategy.

Chapter 4 discusses the role of lawyers in a land battle. It discusses why it is likely that you will need a lawyer at some point in an extended land battle. It sets forth some of the ways a lawyer can help you, such as by keeping local government honest, by advocating interpretations of the law favorable to your position, by helping implement your strategy, by acting as a lightening rod for conflict, by negotiating a land contract, and by dealing with other lawyers. This chapter also discusses how to find and retain counsel and how to manage the fees. It provides examples of the strategic use of counsel in different land battle scenarios.

Chapter 5 discusses the importance of building a grassroots coalition and partnerships and explains how to go about it. It discusses the importance of building community support, even if you initially think you do not need it. This chapter describes how to build a coalition, from choosing a name to distributing written materials. It advises you on how to use your supporters most effectively and to be open to "strange bedfellows." It encourages you to hold your own meetings and suggests other ways to build support. Finally, the chapter discusses the importance of forming partnerships with other organizations. It provides examples of why such partnerships are important, and gives ideas about what kinds of organizations to approach and what to ask for.

Chapter 6 gets into the difficult task of influencing local government. It sets forth two scenarios, that of a local government that is basically supportive of your goals, and that of a local government that supports development and is unreceptive to conservation proposals. This chapter provides specific suggestions on how to deal with the government as a friend as well as an adversary and gives examples of tactics that did or did not work in different land battles. It discusses the sensitivities of local government and specific actions for confronting those sensitivities in a way that will bring you success. Finally, the chapter posits the eventuality of voting out of office certain intransigent government officials, and the importance of public service as part of your long-term plan.

Chapter 7 discusses the role of the media in a land battle. It puts forth some of the problems with publicity, as well as the benefits, to help you determine whether or not you want publicity. It lists different types of media coverage, with examples of how each was used in previous land battles. This chapter also describes some of the different personalities and skill sets that may be necessary for a media campaign. Finally, it recounts the media campaign for Fischer Creek and gives examples of editorials and how they fit into an ongoing land battle.

Chapter 8 takes on the issue of fund-raising. It discusses why you will need money, from incidental expenses for postage and printing, to the more significant costs of professional counsel, all the way to raising millions of dollars for land acquisition. It tells you how to organize for fund-raising and provides ideas on how to raise money for operational expenses. This chapter also discusses the very different task of fund-raising the sizable amount necessary to purchase a piece of land. It describes the kinds of organizational structure and partners you will need and details several fund-raising campaigns. It gives specific pointers, from developing the right relationships to tips on writing and documenting the grant application itself. Using the example of Point Creek, Chapter 8 recounts the process of getting a public grant, from application through all the intermediary stages on the way to receiving a check. Finally, it compares grants from public sources and from private foundations, and discusses raising money from wealthy individuals.

Chapter 9 delves into the dynamic of dealing with a landowner or developer. It describes how developers make money, so that you can understand their motivation and also their weak points. The chapter sets forth general principles for dealing with developers, as well as how to recognize and counter typical developer tactics such as blustering, bullying, bluffing, threatening, and attempting to divide and conquer the community. It provides numerous questions for you to ask concerning a proposed development and provides sample responses to typical developer propositions.

Finally, Chapter 10 tries to help you manage your expectations and tells you how to deal with the inherent stress of undertaking a land battle. Using both Fischer Creek and Point Creek as examples, this chapter describes the many ups and downs of a land battle and offers suggestions for managing the stresses specific to a battle against development.

I hope you decide to fight for control of your community, so that you decide the character of the place in which you live. I also hope this book helps you make that decision and helps you succeed in your fight. You will have more ups and downs in a short time than you ever thought possible. You may find yourself doing things you never thought you would be able to do. You may find friends and allies among people you never knew. Whether you win or lose, you will be glad you tried. Some of you will be rewarded with a miracle.


Judith Perlman has led several successful campaigns to defeat development around her home in Wisconsin. After a career in law and business in Chicago, she is working on innovative conservation projects that preserve important natural resources by putting housing near, but not on, the resource.