Right of Way Work Session for Local Government

by John Bennett, PLS, SR/WA

As part of R&M’s surveying and right-of-way services activities, we often find ourselves presenting our client’s projects before local government Planning Commissions or Platting Boards. We offer our experience to assist the client as they wend their way through what can often be a mind bending collection of complex bureaucratic rules and policies. Our expectation is often that as the process is a creation of local government, they are best equipped to interpret the rules, apply judgment and reach a reasonable conclusion. However, that presumes that the local government staff and citizen volunteers that make up the Planning Commission and Platting Board have the experience and background to understand the issues brought before them. Unfortunately, this becomes a problem when the agency is in the middle of a generational transition that results in a significant loss of staff institutional knowledge due to retirement.

R&M’s Fairbanks office most often deals with the Fairbanks North Star Borough (FNSB) for zoning and platting issues. Many of the current Planning and Platting staff, while undeniably capable, are relatively new, having replaced several employees with 20+ years tenure. Their job involves presenting platting and zoning transactions to the Platting Board or Planning Commission, along with recommendations for approval or denial. The volunteer members of the boards are appointed by the Borough and can represent a broad spectrum of knowledge and experience, including engineering, land development and appraisals. More often though, they consist of average citizens with little specialized knowledge of surveying and mapping activities. Occasionally, positions on the boards go vacant for long periods of time because for many, the free meals on meeting nights don’t quite offset the sessions that can (and recently have) drone on until 3:00 am.

With the knowledge that I will speak on right-of-way issues for food alone (in this case – spaghetti, salad and garlic bread), Kellen Spillman, FNSB Community Planning Deputy Director, contacted me to ask whether I would consider speaking to a joint Planning Commission/Platting Board work session about rights-of-way. Both boards had recently been deluged with issues relating to right-of-way vacations, appeals against right-of-way dedications and determinations of whether public access existed or not. I was offered the opportunity to make my presentation on October 21, 2015. As I often tell people, the problem is not getting me to start talking, it’s getting me to stop. In a pre-emptive strike, I was instructed that the Platting Board meeting would start in one hour, so that was all the time I had.

I started by thanking those in attendance for the opportunity to speak, but I said there was one thing I was going to have a difficult time getting my head around that evening. This was realization that approximately 43 years ago, I would have been sitting at a desk with Professor Emeritus Bill Mendenhall, PE, PLS instructing me on the joys of elementary surveying, and tonight, Bill Mendenhall – now a Platting Board member – sat before me while I instructed the group on the wonders of right-of-way research.

After that, I was on a dead run. I talked about the difference between the term right-of-way as opposed to an easement, the limitations of easements or the “scope of use” and the nature of “management” versus “ownership” of rights-of-way. Then we moved into what I refer to as the “patchwork quilt” of interests that collectively form many right-of-way corridors. We discussed Public Land Orders, RS-2477 trails and section line easements, federal patent reservations, statutory and common law dedications, public prescriptive easements, ANCSA 17(b) easements and federal highway Title 23 grants.

All I can say is I hope they had as much fun as I did. I was happy to have them ask several questions, which was an indicator that they were engaged, but hopefully not overwhelmed. I was a bit curious about a couple of folks in attendance who were frantically taking notes. Once informed that my presentation would be recorded, I had to constantly remind myself to maintain “PC”, which can be difficult at my age.

The objective of this presentation was two-fold. First, to share my knowledge and assist those who can use it in their daily activities, and truth be told, I would be willing to do that whether I was currently employed or retired. And second, to have public officials and members of the public associate R&M CONSULTANTS, INC. with the knowledge and professional services we can provide.

J Bennett (Web)John Bennett, PLS, SR/WA is a Senior Land Surveyor in R&M’s Right-of-Way Services Group, working out of our Fairbanks office. John commenced his surveying career with the Department of Highways more than four decades ago, a career that has included 10 years with private sector consultants and 28 years with the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities Right-of-Way Section. He served as the Northern Region Right-of-Way Chief for more than half of his career, in which he managed the surveying, mapping, utilities, property management and acquisition units with the goal of maintaining quality service while achieving project delivery objectives. John was the regional titles and plans supervisor for more than 13 years, in which he developed and presented the key guidance document for the research and assessment of existing highway rights-of-way in Alaska. He holds an A.A.S. in Survey Technology from Anchorage Community College. John received his professional land surveying license in 1984, and is also certified as a Senior Right-of-Way Professional through the International Right-of-Way Association. He is an enthusiastic, knowledgeable and engaging speaker on all topics relating to right-of-way in Alaska.