It can be a daunting prospect, especially for those new to the Charleston area.

You get wind of a proposed rezoning, road project or development plan that has you scratching your head — or worse. How best to engage?

The old adage "You can't fight City Hall" seems to offer little comfort, but take heart: The reality of interacting with local government, City Hall, Town Hall or County Council, has always been more nuanced than that, especially for those willing to invest a little time and thought.

So what follows here is a sort of primer for those folks, a way to engage City Hall and win, inspired partly by Chinese general Sun Tzu who wrote the "Art of War," a somewhat mystical yet still widely read book of military advice.

Choose your battles (wisely)

Tzu wrote that it's important to know when to fight and when not to fight.

When thinking about this decision, think deeply about geography and others who may have something at stake. How close are you to the parcel being rezoned? To the intersection being reconfigured? The closer you are, the more the immediate impact, the more your voice will tend to be heard, the more it may pay to speak up.

Also, is this what you really care most about? What you think will make the biggest difference in your quality of life? Engaging can take time: Controversial issues are seldom settled at a single meeting, and it makes sense to think about how best to use your limited time.

There are people who stand up at public meetings and regularly share whatever's on their mind, as most elected officials probably begin to wonder how much later they will arrive home for dinner as a result of all this sharing. 

That said, Mount Pleasant Town Administrator Eric DeMoura holds regular coffee hours to talk with town residents concerned about something. "Always pick up the phone," he advised. "Too often, what we see nowadays is here comes an email that's accusatory, to say it nicely. Call, talk to us, come meet us. We want good government as much as they do."

Toomer Lane

A woman who lives along this narrow street in Mount Pleasant's Old Village didn't write a nasty email about how poor maintenance was damaging cars. Instead, she met for coffee with Town Administrator Eric DeMoura, who helped get it fixed. Provided

For instance, one woman from the Old Village recently spoke to DeMoura over coffee and noted a section of Toomer Street had risen so high — as asphalt was piled up over an old oak's tree roots — that cars were scraping their bottom.

DeMoura asked town staff to take a look. They did and shaved off excess asphalt to flatten out the street. "I got a nice thank you note from her," he said.

Timing is critical

The earlier you engage, the better, partly because it's easier all around to make changes and adaptations before much time and money is spent. It's a prime reason many developers meet with neighborhood residents and environmental or preservation groups to present their plans and hear any feedback before things progress to a public meeting.

If a rezoning or another change already has been approved on first and second reading, it can be challenging to get it shelved after that. The question naturally will arise, Where were you before now? 

Of course, keeping track of all this can take more time than the average person has. That's a big reason why several local cities have encouraged neighborhood associations to form, so someone there can keep track of agendas and be a neighborhood conduit with local government for proposed changes in the works.

If your neighborhood doesn't have one, consider forming one. It's easier to influence something in the early stages, but someone needs to track what's going on.

State Ports Authority new hotel02.JPG

Crews work on a hotel project at the site of the former State Ports Authority offices near Joe Riley Waterfront Park on Thursday, Aug, 29, 2019, in Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Change presents opportunity

You might not be able to stop a development but might be able to alter aspects of it (lighting, landscaping), maybe even get something that your neighborhood has wanted.

When the State Ports Authority announced plans to put a massive container terminal on the southern end of Daniel Island, residents were quick to harness that plan to speed up work on a second interchange for the island along Interstate 526.

Public opposition eventually scuttled the container terminal plan, but by then, the interchange already was built.

On a far-smaller scale, the developer redoing the former Jabers grocery store at Rutledge Avenue and Huger Street sought a special parking variance for the project. Hampton Park Terrace neighborhood leader Kevin Eberle of the neighborhood association recalls he wasn't particularly concerned about that variance but wanted to see a more attractive parking lot.

To win the neighborhood's support, the developer agreed to plant new trees deeper into the lot, where they wouldn't need as much pruning because of overhead power lines. "There is some room for compromise usually," Eberle says. 

Know Yourself, Know the Enemy

Ryan Johnson of North Charleston often speaks to local business leaders to give them tips on interacting successfully with that city's government.

"The No. 1 thing I ask them is how many of them know their city council member," he says. "Nobody raises their hand, hardly."

So a phone call or email to your council member is a great place to start. Better yet, get to know them well enough to vote in local elections. If you show up at a meeting on occasion, you'll probably get noticed. Attendance is usually low, Johnson said. 

And don't mistake social media for being social. "Facebook is not a government forum," Johnson said. "Attend public meetings, call and talk to a human within your local government. Many times, staff can help with your issue immediately, you don't always have to contact an elected official." 

As far as knowing yourself, just keep in mind that your voice is not necessarily more important than your neighbor's one street or one neighborhood away. You cast one vote. Most elected officials worth their salt will want that vote and try to get it.

But it's important to recognize your limits and build allies, including neighbors, friends and other voters who see things your way. It's easier than ever with social media.

It's also important to know that a city or county council works differently than a board of zoning appeals. City and county council members are elected and (most usually) base their decision on what they see as the greatest public good, at least as far as what might cause them to lose the fewest votes.

But those who serve on boards of zoning appeals are more independent. They are appointed to act as judges, specifically judges of whether a request fits in with the city's or county's existing zoning law. It's a pretty thankless task.

And it's important to think about who you see as "the enemy." Is it a developer trying to earn a living? An elected official? Understanding a little bit more about them (and empathizing with their perspective) might help you find a mutually agreeable way forward — and minimize any conflict.

No one wins in conflict

It goes without saying that if you're resorting to calling elected officials names, things are not going well for you. Tzu notes the best way to win is not to fight at all, and only the most ornery and pugnacious among us wouldn't agree with that.

Those who feel upset about receiving a parking ticket or a traffic citation may take their case to an administrative judge, municipal judge or magistrate. But those who bother to appeal need to keep their temper in check: Being respectful and sticking with the facts will work a lot better.

Eberle says most people don't want to "fight City Hall" but instead want to woo City Hall to their way of thinking on a particular development. Some of the most epic battles in City Hall are over big projects, such as Charleston Place in the 1980s or the Sergeant Jasper replacement during this past decade.

The savvy developer will try to avoid conflict by meeting with neighbors and other interest groups ahead of time. Sometimes, that works great, such as Lowe Enterprises’ effort to build a new hotel at 176 Concord St. during a time when many residents and preservationists are increasingly wary of hotels. It met with many groups ahead of time, heard them out and responded in a way that kept controversy to a minimum. 

Success breeds success

If you interact with local elected officials and staff successfully, you'll get to know them in a way that will come in handy the next time you see that colorful "Public Hearing" sign pop up in a neighbor's yard.

So the best way to fight City Hall is to build relationships where you can and work toward what you want long before anyone thinks about using the word, "fight."

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Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.

Robert Behre works as an editor and reporter. He focuses on the historical landscape, including architecture, archaeology and whatever piques his interest on a particular day.

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