Negotiations, not courts, may solve land-use issues
Seattle — Why battle when you can bargain, ask land-use experts. "Negotiated settlements are the wave of the future," Judith Runstad, a lawyer , told a crowd of 1,000 at a land-use seminar not long ago.
Land developers and citizen groups are often at loggerheads over what can or should be built. Thus, in a negotiated settlement, both parties in a dispute agree on the ground rules and then sign a written pact which records any tradeoffs.
One citizen group here won lower density in a housing project by swapping a pledge of no protest. The developer, on the other hand, won government approval for construction, thus escaping costly delays.
"Negotiated settlements are good deals for developers because they can say to the decisionmakers, 'Both sides agree, except for one small point regarding left-turn lanes,'" asserts Joel Haggard, a lawyer who represents the developers.
Opponents pulled their chairs up to the bargaining table in the following cases, illustrating the wide range of disputes that may be resolved through negotiation.
"We require the Washington Public Power Supply System to bargain in good faith with a community when there will be a socioeconomic impact from siting a power plant," says Bill Fitch of the Washington State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.
"The law calls for compensation for loss of wild or aquatic life. Fish, for example, were given as compensation for Columbia River fish loss.
"If parties do not bargain in good faith, they must come before our council. Then we have to prod them."
In Nebraska, the National Wildlife Federation and utility companies were at odds over the Platte River dam plan. The federation feared damage to a crucial stopover point on the migration path of the whooping crane.
Ultimately the utilities established a $7.5 million trust fund to buy land and water rights and to pay for research, on behalf of the birds, according to Patrick Parenteau, a director of the federation.
Washington State utilized the same principle. Here, the governor recommended compensating monies to the City of Monroe to help offset costs from a proposed 500-bed prison. Prisons strain local law enforcement, prosecutor budgets, sewers, and other services.
Beyond Monroe, sewers are a nagging issue with communities.
When septic-tank pollution threatened scenic Payette Lake in Idaho, it was clear that sewers were needed. Fortunately, federal aid was forthcoming, provided a land-use plan was drawn up.
Impacted residents felt disenfranchised when the city adopted a land-use plan within three days without hearings, according to Gerald Cormick, director of the University of Washington office of environmental mediation.
In response, unhappy homeowners went to court.
Mediation ended the statemate, however. The City of McCall agreed to established a zoning and planning commission composed of Payette Lake homeowners for the impacted area, according to Mr. Cormick.
The Environmental Mediation Project in Madison, Wis., also works on cases such as this.
Smaller-scale disputes also may be resolved.
The Continental Plaza Association of Seattle wanted to bulldoze low-income housing to build luxury condominiums. Eventually, pressure produced a pact. The association agreed to restore two old buildings nearby to provide low-rent housing for displaced renters, reports Neisco Moscatel of the association.
International Land Corporation Ltd. also bucked the housing-displacement issue.
Then the Canadian firm agreed to rent four units in its 61-unit luxury condominium project to displaced tenants for $90 a month, plus cost-of-living increases tied to the consumer-price index. In addition, International Land agreed to build six apartment units nearby, renting them for $150 a month, plus consumer-price adjustments.
Developers paid $350 in relocation costs to each tenant evicted from the old Kelleher House, also on the Seattle condo site.
For work on negotiations, the firm compensated the First Hill Community Council $2,500. In return, the council did not block the building-permit application for the 17-story condo.
Settlements such as this one permit both sides to score points rather then gamble with defeat before the city/county council.
Courts are an impetus to bargaining, too. In court, ne side wins and one side loses. Clogged calendars mean delays, costing developers money. At the bargaining table, issues may be resolved sooner. Legal fees shrink.
Ethical questions are more complex.
Some citizens won't negotiate because they believe the environment cannot be traded off; others say they won't accept what they charge is a "bribe" to permit environmental damage.
In-kind compensation was the trade-off when the port city of Everett agreed to preserve one acre of land on Jetty Island for each acre consumed by development. Or when Grays Harbor agreed to swap 2,500 acres of wetland to the State Department of Game in exchange for being allowed to develop 500 other acres.
"It's more complex than 2,500 for 500 acres," declares Liz Greenhagen of the Washington Environmental Council. "We've found new evidence that the 500 acres is a habitat. We also feel there is political pressure to get the case implemented."
Negotiations can bog down in political quicksand as well as from citizen nitpicking or mistrust. Talks also can lag because of the way the laws are written.
"A new federal-state project is under way involving a couple of states," said Mr. Cormick of the University of Washington. "Our project aims to redraft some state and federal legislation to encourage settlements and to discourage lawsuits."
Settlements, not statements, appear to be the emerging trend.