October 8, 2021 | Jay D. Spencer

ROW Acquisition, Crops, and Clear Communication

Right-of-way (ROW) acquisition teams obtain easements or access agreements with landowners along project routes for electric and gas corridor projects, municipal (water, sewer, and roadway) projects, and renewable energy projects. When a project route runs through valuable farmland, it can prove to be a sticking point for many of the stakeholders within the project area. In my experience, what’s critical to managing this process goes beyond technical know-how and hard numbers—it takes an understanding of human nature and emotional connections to the land.

Not All Crop Loss Is Equal

When routing a project through rural areas, landowners can face financial impacts in the form of crop damage or crop loss. While agreements compensate the landowners, it’s important to understand that not all crop loss is equal.

A good example is the difference in the value of commercial corn vs. seed corn. Commercial corn is what you see most often in farm fields; it’s pretty easy to plant, grow, and harvest. Commercial corn is sold to processing companies who prepare the corn for manufacture into plastics, syrups, cereals, and ethanol.

Seed corn isn’t grown to harvest and sell to manufacturers—it’s grown to produce seeds for future planting. Seed corn is worth considerably more than commercial corn, and the fields take much more planning and management throughout the growing season and require special harvesting techniques. An unintended error in the extended area beyond the ROW could cause the entire seed corn field to be rejected by the seed corn company resulting in a loss of tens of thousands of dollars.

“Some projects have complex negotiations, and those conversations are really difficult to get through. What holds it all together is operating on a foundation of trust; to do that, we all need to communicate clearly, early, and often.”

Controlling Site Access Mitigates Risk

Because of the complex planting, growth, pollination, and moisture requirements for seed corn, controlling and managing property access during construction is imperative. We experienced this on a recent project, where on Day 1, a construction vehicle parked in the path of the farmer’s center-pivot irrigation, which was the key to maintaining the moisture, and value, of the seed corn. For this particular crop, the farmer adjusted the planting layout for the male and female corn plants to minimize construction impact. Needless to say, construction equipment parked in the irrigation path as the system moves through the field posed a safety risk and could have resulted in crop loss and equipment damage.

Since the farmer had our contact information, we had the vehicle cleared from the scene within an hour. The utility client changed their construction process and implemented detailed briefings for every new individual who came to work on the site. To further protect the seed corn, they installed a snow fence that defined the working area for the center-pivot irrigation, so crews understood safe zones for the construction equipment and when accessing the site.

Images illustrates position of center-pivot irrigation and snow fence used to define safe zones for the construction crew.

It allowed us to prove to this tenant farmer that he could rely on our team to get things done quickly. Our accessibility during the project was critical as we navigated issues together. Had he not known who to call, and had we not communicated and acted quickly, someone could’ve been hurt, the construction and irrigation equipment could’ve been damaged, and the farmer might have lost millions of dollars.

Establishing Trust with Clear Communication

Like with any relationship, ongoing communication is critical. Large utility companies often have community liaisons, like in the seed corn example. Often our ROW agents are the first people to meet the landowners face-to-face. We establish rapport and set an expectation of transparency right from the beginning. Some projects have complex ROW negotiations, and those conversations can be intricate to get through. What holds it all together is operating on a foundation of trust; to do that, we all need to communicate clearly, early, and often.

ROW sounds very technical in nature, but what really matters is the trust you build from mutual respect. Everyone has a story—just like in residential real estate, there are emotions tied to property. Maybe the owner’s great-great-grandfather planted that large oak tree on the property, and maybe the family had annual picnics under that tree. A landowner can be attached emotionally, whereas the utility sees the property as a line on a spreadsheet. Neither is wrong. We’re the bridge that connects the two, so the ability to empathize with people is an absolute must.

Above and Beyond the ROW

Our ROW team has such a unique set of backgrounds and experiences. We have people with law degrees and real estate licenses who know the ins and outs of the agreements. I’ve been in the real estate industry in some manner since 1983. I’ve been in residential and commercial real estate, property management, and cell tower acquisition, and I’ve participated in zoning hearings, with some municipal experience serving as an elected township supervisor for four years in addition to managing title insurance companies. As a team, we have a knack for problem solving and bringing a sense of humanity to these projects that go a long way in building connections with stakeholders.

Shipshewana Gas Line, IN

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  • 5-mile high-pressure 12-inch gas line
  • Located within client’s existing right-of-way
  • Land surveying
  • Ecological services
  • Right of Way Acquisition

69kV Shaker Run to Liberty, OH

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  • 8-mile 69kV transmission line
  • Shaker Run Substation to Liberty Substation
  • Land surveying and right of way acquisition to support design and permitting

Churubusco Gas Improvement Project, IN

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  • 7.5-mile high-pressure 16-inch underground gas line
  • 32 parcels along entire route
  • 2 regulator stations to extend high pressure feed
  • Land surveying
  • Right of Way Acquisition

Let’s work together. Learn about our ROW acquisition expertise and contact us to talk about your project.

About The Author

Jay D. Spencer

Jay D. Spencer Project Manager, Right of Way Acquisition Services Translating complex concepts into approachable solutions for clients and landowners. With nearly 40 years of real estate and right of way acquisition experience, Jay ensures project success by serving as Learn more

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