Monday, May 9, 2011

Never, Never, Never Use the "T" Word

A look at the International Right of Way Association (IRWA)

From time to time, Bury Northern Pass browses our opponents’ websites to get a sense of what they read and write. This post takes a look at an online journal called Right of Way, the official voice of the IRWA, the International Right of Way Association, which has been around since 1934 and claims 10,000 members in the U.S. and Canada. There is indeed a whole profession devoted to acquiring right of ways. Members take training courses, get credentials, attend conferences. “WAs,” right of way agents, study negotiation and acquisition, management, appraisal, relocation assistance, environmental issues, asset/property management, real estate law, engineering and surveying. It’s a multi-billion dollar business, the IRWA says. Much of the training emphasizes negotiation and acquisition—getting the land the employer's project needs, usually from unwilling, even hostile, landowners.
A PSNH contractor, Coler & Colantonio, maintains membership in the IRWA. Let’s see what a right of way agent might read in the association’s journal of record.
Carol L. Brooks, who is a SR/WA (Senior Right of Way Agent), has written a series of articles on negotiating with landowners for Right of Way. Illuminating stuff. In one set of articles, Brooks creates two pairs of fictional characters. On one side are the landowners, Mr. and Mrs. Stiller (Augie and Iris), who are rancher-farmers of some type (there’s a cornfield in one illustration, and in another, they live in a log house). On the other side are the WAs for Mountain Range telecom, Meg and Joe. Meg’s and  Joe’s job is to get the Stillers to agree to Mountain Range's uncompensated taking of their land to place fiber optic cable across it. The Stillers are portrayed as rural hicks who speak in an ersatz hillbilly dialect (“aint,” “dagdum,” etc). Iris is ignorant enough to wonder what dietary fiber has to do with telephone cable. But she’s not dumb enough to agree to the taking of their land for no compensation, and she wants to know why Mountain Range can’t put their cable somewhere else. The negotiation stalls out quickly; Iris tells Augie to escort Meg and Joe to the door. Augie tells the two WAs not to bother to return. “You got my Missus all fired up,” Augie explains. Henpecked Augie’s wife-weary attitude invites readers to see Iris as unreasonable and domineering. He’s weak; she wears the pants.
But that’s only subliminally the problem. In the next article, Meg and Joe conduct a post-mortem on their failure to get the Stillers’ voluntary agreement to the taking, which, of course, is going to cost the company legal fees for the eminent domain action to get the land. First and foremost, they decide, “never, never, never use the word ‘take’ to negotiate.” Use words like “acquire.” Avoid technical terms (e.g., fiber optic) and legalese; speak in “plain ol’ English.” They also realize that they were grossly overdressed. Joe’s suit and tie and Meg’s high heels did not allow the Stillers to identify with them. (They both wear flannel shirts.) Meg and Joe hadn’t done their homework either; they didn’t know why the cable had to be placed on the Stiller land and could not answer Iris’s question. They also failed to read correctly the Stillers’ body language (despite the fact that the illustration unambiguously shows Augie holding a rifle, Iris a stick as they glare at the two agents). And so forth. Meg and Joe decide to attend an IRWA course titled, “Skills and Attitudes for Successful Negotiations -Part I,” which is covered in the third article in Brooks’s series, and readers are invited to listen in on the course with Meg and Joe as they learn the fine art of negotiating with recalcitrant rural landowners.
I didn’t go with Meg and Joe. Somehow, I just don’t think Iris or anyone else is going to give up land voluntarily even if they pass the course with flying colors. And Iris certainly won't let Augie give away the ranch-farm either.