Outsider-In

People talk of Mr. Trump as a Washington outsider. He is not a politician is how the story goes. Nothing could be further from being correct.

A new highrise on the waterfront, a new Wal-Mart coming on the edge of town, a new giant shopping center are major issues at the local level of government. Stop the zoning, elect anti-development candidates, fill the city commission chambers are among the major local government motivators to get people off their hands to speak up. Still these developments creating traffic concerns and eliminating open space areas continue to proliferate. New areas seek incorporation to create their own cities and towns to better control land use and development. Yet the beat goes on and the buildings keep expanding. As the song goes “we paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

If we, so many of us oppose these developments, how does the work go on? What is being said or done that induces elected officials to side with the developers? Jobs, increased tax base, such a beautiful building and be a city focal point are part of the rationale provided. These will create new opportunities for the local residents. Somehow we generally accept that we objectors made our concerns known, our voices were heard but we lost this one fair and square. We’ll do better next time. If you accept and believe such outcomes, I will sell you a bridge connecting New York and New Jersey. I must caution “buyer beware” there are often traffic jams but just contact the local authorities for help in alleviating the problem or at least the complaints.

After forty years of working in land development both in local government and mostly in the private sector, I think it is safe to say there is no level playing field. Perhaps being a slow learner it took me awhile to realize that. The question isn’t what you try to develop but rather who is asking?

Land use issues often generate civic activation in cities large and small in this country. Not all developments deserve major opposition but many do rate the need for neighborhood and community concern. Likewise all land developers are not devious or even sleazy. It is a legitimate business and leads to the creation of jobs. Sometimes building projects even can spur economic revitalization of an area. Regardless most development must receive a review and approval to proceed. This process creates a system that leads to manipulation if not outright corruption. The manipulation may be in the form of political contributions, fund-raising, access or even graft.

This is the world from which Mr. Trump comes. Homeowner associations also try to game the system. Certain candidates are favored who each believe will support their issues. Sometimes this is obvious, other times it is more difficult to foresee what you will get. Regardless the homeowner groups generally do not have the money, expertise or perseverance to overcome the onslaught from the developer’s team. The benefits of the new project are highlighted to the extent that not to support it is made to appear preposterous or at least not in the best interest of the community. Objectors are portrayed as selfish people seeking only gain for themselves. Do we any of us really believe that most developers are doing this for the good of the community or do money and power not connect here? The ballot box and time can be both the friend and enemy of both sides. It may be most difficult to defeat over zealous elected officials who hide behind economic opportunity but it can be a powerful source to exercise control. Time on the other hand can be a benefit for the developer or perhaps more often for the homeowners. The money to mount a legitimate opposition is a substantial burden for homeowner groups, perhaps less so for the developer. The development team and money generally are in place for court action if necessary. Time may be the enemy of the developer due to interest rates, carrying costs or sales commitments which may increase or expire over time.

This is the world of large-scale developers who generally deal at the local government level. These people sit in offices overlooking the community and government offices. These people do not want to occupy the seats behind the dais, only to control, not just influence, the elected types who do fill the high back chairs. This is a world of manipulation, not necessarily a devious act, and control. Enormous amounts of money may be on the line and depend on the approval of a majority of the elected commissioners. Developers may be gamblers. Gambling on the economy, sales, marketing, etc in anticipation of large profits and future developments. These are gamblers but they do prefer a stacked deck in the governmental review process.

This is the world from which Mr. Trump comes. He may be one of the good guys in this process, of which there are some, but I tend to doubt that from what I have seen of his campaign. Claiming to be an outsider coming to fix government is like the fox and the hen-house. No matter what brand of developer he may claim to be, it does not change that he is anything but an outsider. In fact he may be the worst kind of insider, the kind who manipulates those inside from the outside. Such a person knows the system, games the system and is deeply imbedded in the system. If I am to vote for an insider then I prefer Hillary Clinton. She has a record of public service which is available for all to see.

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