When a region’s population grows, logic says its roads and highways must grow with it. But regional highway expansion projects can be a double-edged sword. While easing traffic congestion and shortening commutes, highway expansions often face pushback from the residents and businesses they may displace.
But there is a tool that can help temper property owner concerns and lead to more successful program outcomes. It is embedded in the right of entry (ROE) process, already a requisite for highway expansion in many states, including Texas.
Many departments of transportation (DOTs) and their consultants approach an ROE agreement as a formality needed to gain access to private property so they can conduct surveys, locate utilities, identify wetlands and historical sites, and visualize conditions in real time. When approached strategically, the ROE process can accomplish even more. It can be designed to engage interested parties, facilitate communication and demonstrate transparency, all of which can contribute to higher rates of property access, more accurate and complete documentation, and better decision-making.
Wringing More Value From the ROE Process
Because a major highway project can impact hundreds of properties, DOTs and their consultants tend to secure ROE agreements from property owners en masse. Engineering teams rely on these agreements to gather important project information, and turn to desktop resources — Google Maps, internet research and other publicly available resources — to fill the gaps when an agreement cannot be reached.
The more controversial a project, the lower participation tends to be — and the more challenging it becomes to make informed engineering decisions and navigate the project on a client’s behalf.
These are the very projects, however, that have the most to gain from positive communications and real-time problem-solving with interested parties. That’s why our firm re-imagined the ROE process and has adopted an individualized approach to property owner engagement.
Highly Customized Approach Makes Impact in the Southwest
A recent Texas highway expansion project that impacted more than 700 homes and businesses demonstrates what a difference an individualized approach can make.
For this project, we developed a process for contacting owners and addressing their concerns in real time on a case-by-case basis. For example, a property used for hunting had animal traps strewn about and the owner was inclined to reject an ROE agreement outright. In that case, we worked with the owner to understand the owner’s objections and identify dates and times for a safe site visit. Those conditions then became part of the ROE agreement.
In other cases, property owners or their attorneys presented a list of terms and conditions for an ROE agreement. In our role as a Texas DOT consultant, we were not in a position to accept these terms and conditions. But we could negotiate ways to mitigate the concerns they represented. In some cases, we agreed to enter only certain sections of a property or avoid certain gates. The extra time spent to understand property owner concerns usually culminated in an ROE agreement.
These types of exchanges create goodwill between state agencies and the communities they serve, especially when concerns are handled with sensitivity and in a way that reflects well on our client. They provide an opportunity to explain route options and their impacts on property owners. These conversations can be especially helpful when working with owners who may not appreciate how survey results or utility placement might benefit them. Granting study teams access to a property to conduct field surveys can be beneficial to a property owner in the event sensitive features are identified, which may eliminate the owner’s property from further consideration.
The Long-Term Value of a Property Database
To effectively manage the ROE process for the more than 700 property owners, we documented agreement terms and tracked them in a property database, which also included land parcel data, survey results, correspondence, special property owner requests and contact information. As the project moves forward, members of our project team can access the database and use the information found there to understand environmental and utility impacts and inform design alternatives.
And that’s not all. The database has become a helpful tool for facilitating communication with interested parties. It helps everyone on the project team stay abreast of agreed-upon ROE terms, as well as any safety hazards that may be present at a site.
Does our individualized approach to an ROE take more time than a more general, one-size-fits-all method? Yes. But it can also mitigate controversy and streamline interactions with interested parties down the road. On this project, the team compiled significantly more data than is typically possible, and that data has been used to support highway route alignments and other decisions.
Done right, the ROE process contributes to greater project success.
Land acquisitions are often a critical part of transportation development projects. Learn how our integrated real estate team can deliver a dependable, scalable process with a flexible, customized strategy that meets your requirements.