When I submitted my documents to obtain the land use entitlements for Pomona Woods, I didn’t know this use of the word “entitlement”, and I certainly didn’t see myself as a “developer”. To date I’d been excitedly moving along my entrepreneurial journey – buying the property, creating a business plan, designing the building with my brother, selecting a builder, and filling out required paperwork – and it felt like everything was falling in to place as it should. That is until the county’s hearing examiner retired. Months went by before I finally got a hearing date for the required Conditional Use Permit. Then the public notice for the hearing went up and my naïve, sunny bubble was burst.
I first got word of the NextDoor storm when someone reached out to me on Instagram with questions. By the time I set up an account there were hundreds of negative comments about me and the project. Having never been a public figure, I was left shocked, dismayed, hurt and indignant. It didn’t matter if I politely corrected misinformation and warmly invited people to reach out to me over phone, email or in-person with questions and concerns. For some neighbors I was a “developer” building a “resort/hotel/spa” (take your pick, they were all meant negatively). It didn’t matter that I shared that I was one woman realizing her entrepreneurial dream of developing a retreat center focused on bringing people together in nature. It didn’t matter even after I shared a 4-page FAQ introducing myself and addressing the concerns raised. Developer was the word used to rally opposition.
Right before the scheduled hearing, a group of neighbors decided to appeal the County’s Determination of Non-Significance of my SEPA checklist. They disagreed with the County’s report indicating that my project conformed with code and would have limited impact on the environment and neighbors. I had waited so long for the hearing, and put so much effort into preparing the paperwork, I was in shock when the County’s attorney advised me that a delay was inevitable and I should find a good attorney. Fortunately, I took her counsel to heart and found a great attorney and experts. The hearing was indeed delayed several more months to give everyone time to prepare.
As the hearing date approached, a 50 square foot mud puddle was deemed to be a wetland and the hearing was further delayed so my biologist could create a Critical Areas Report and a civil engineer could be hired to re-route the driveway design away from the wetland. Almost a year and many thousands of dollars later the hearing took place. My attorney and experts politely and systematically disproved all the appellants arguments, and after a 7 week wait (that felt like an eternity) the hearing examiner decided thoroughly in our favor.
This is just one of many challenges I didn’t even know to expect and prepare for, but I’m facing them one by one with a great team of advisors and supporters. Going through these challenges I realized I AM a developer and I am EARNING that title. I also set aside my own negative connotations of the word developer and realized a developer is a creator. Nothing about the development process is easy and the financial payoff isn’t guaranteed. What I find exciting is working with a dedicated team to create a space that will inspire people to do and be better together – a space that reflects my values and aesthetic. Doing this while still delivering a decent return for investors is challenging but doable. There are all kinds of developers, just like in every profession, and we deserve to be judged on our merits. I’m incredibly proud of everything I am learning and doing and I get to create my own definition of developer.
As the storm clouds clear, and I see the sun shining on my path ahead, I can identify a few lessons learned. I would also love to hear what you’ve learned when taking on a public facing challenge, as I’m sure I will continue to have to navigate this stage with as much grace as possible.
- Get ahead of the story: I might not have changed opinions of my project, but if I had done a better job of communicating what Pomona Woods is and isn’t ahead of the public notice, I might have avoided the delay and cost of an appeal and better demonstrated my respect for my neighbors.
- Choose your team wisely: At every turn, having smart, committed and good people working with me has made a big difference. I’ve done my research, trusted my gut, and spent the money I needed to. I also regularly let the team know how much I appreciate and value them.
- Share your dream: I talk to people on dog walks, in cafes, and literally anywhere a conversation can start, about Pomona Woods. Invariably there is a gem I take away. Most generously provide encouragement, which is a comfort when I’m facing obstacles. I also follow up when people say I should speak to someone they know and I actively reach out to influencers in the community. Besides the gems I’ve incorporated into the plan, I’ve effectively amplified awareness for Pomona Woods. With every conversation I get better and better at describing what we will bring to the community.
- The answer is no until you ask for Yes: A polite ask quite frequently leads to a Yes, but not asking will always leave you at No. As an entrepreneur I am so thankful for experience gained in business development and fundraising. Sharing a compelling story and not being afraid to invite others to support the dream is entrepreneurship 101.