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Right-of-Way Local Public Agency Program - Best Management Practices

Case Studies of WSDOT/Local Public Agency Coordination

The researcher visited and interviewed staff from WSDOT RES and Highways & Local Programs Service Center at Headquarters in Olympia. In addition to the visits to headquarters, three WSDOT RES's regional offices, the Southwest Real Estate Services, Olympic Real Estate Services, and the Northwest Real Estate Services were visited. Stops were made at two local agencies that both are certified for ROW procedures (Clark and Snohomish County).

Given the goals and responsibilities among the aforementioned organizations, it becomes important to understand how the professional working relationship between WSDOT and its local agencies evolved. The evolution of positive relationships was not a result of enforcement of public policy. Instead, it evolved because of the need for Federal funding for roadway construction projects, as well as the Federal requirements tied to eligibility for this funding. Federal eligibility regulations require all Federal funding to be funneled to the local agencies through the STD. Consequently; the STD is then responsible for ensuring all Federal requirements are met at the local level through project oversight. The required linkage between WSDOT and its local agencies forced cooperative planning and better communication. This led to more integrated working relationships built on mutual respect, trust, and understanding for all entities.

The roles of each individual and job process are now clearly defined and communicated throughout each organization, through the development of a Local Agency Guidelines Manual and several training programs. These programs are offered to local agencies by WSDOT to facilitate knowledge of the ROW process. WSDOT RES staff opened up its procedural training course to local agencies and consultants, and dubbed it "Charm School." These training and communication tools fostered two of the key components needed for a successful program. Other key elements include a sufficient organization structure that enables a STD to staff for positions, like the local agency coordinator and engineer. These key positions should be staffed with personnel who possess strong human interaction abilities, excellent coordination and communication skills. With this concept in mind, let's evaluate the WSDOT and local agency relationship from the perception of both the staff of WSDOT RES and the local organizations.

4.1 Headquarters, Olympia Service Center Office of Real Estate Services

Olympia, Washington

It would be difficult to discuss the relationship between WSDOT's regional offices and its local agencies, without first discussing WSDOT's overall philosophy. WSDOT's mission and philosophy are carried out under a decentralized organization that empowers each of its six regional offices to conduct its transportation projects. However WSDOT's and its regions' overall philosophy remains centralized. This philosophy embraces the intent of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) that requires cooperation between WSDOT and local agencies that elect to use Federal funding on transportation projects. Federal regulations permit delegation of authority to local agencies through the FHWA/WSDOT Stewardship Agreement for certain aspects of roadway projects.

The relationship between WSDOT RES and its local agencies evolved through a learning and sharing environment. Local agencies did not have ready access to Procedures and Policies in the 1970's, as WSDOT was not required to monitor the operations of local agencies at that time. The Washington State Relocation Act of 1975 brought forth an auditing type of program that might be seen as adversarial. The local agencies were doing work without guidelines, then audited and told, "This is not right." The auditing issues tended to be more about the letter of the law rather than the spirit. The Uniform Act and amendments of 1987 brought the mechanism for effective communication among Federal, state and local agencies: sharing knowledge and personnel. The more informed the local agencies became on right-of-way processes, the easier it was for WSDOT and the local agencies to get the project certified.

WSDOT's RES Division embraced the Uniform Act and amendments of 1987 and worked on procedures and processes that mirrored that of the FHWA. WSDOT's objective in adapting the FHWA procedures was to provide the right environment and production tools for obtaining maximum Federal funds. Secondly, this was to provide the locals with state guidance documents that would allow the local agencies to meet Federal-Aid requirements for local transportation projects. WSDOT first talked to its partners, the local agencies, to determine what tools would be helpful, then diligently worked to provide them the information required to become certified for Right-of-Way Acquisition Procedures. WSDOT also provided process training on how to complete the work in accordance with state and Federal guidelines.

The process for how local agencies obtain certification for right-of-way acquisition requires the agency to submit its acquisition procedures to its regional engineer. The regional engineer reviews the procedures and forwards them through the regional coordinator to the OSC Coordination Manager for approval. If the local agency procedures are approved, then the local agency will be approved to acquire right-of-way. The level of approval will be dependent on the local agency's staff qualifications. If the local agency has a minimal staff, then it may be approved to acquire a single project with direct supervision from the regional coordinator. The OSC Highways & Local Programs Engineer will write an acquisition of right-of-way procedures letter to the local agency, with a copy provided to the regional coordinator. The Highways & Local Programs Service Center Project Development Engineer and the region coordinator then conduct periodic reviews of the local agency procedures on all Federal aid projects.

The reviews include assurance that the local agency will conform to state and Federal laws and FHWA regulations. The local agency will provide a list of all positions administering the project, performing appraisal, appraisal review, acquisition, relocation and property management. The local agency will provide a list of current staff and their qualifications to work in the representative positive. The local agency will then provide its policy for handling administrative settlements, including the approving authority(s) and process, and its appraisal waiver process.

Galen Wright, the Manager of the local agency coordinators at headquarters, was charged with the development Chapter 25 (Right of Way Procedures) of the Local Agency Guidelines Manual. He also provides the local agencies with a short ROW training course at least twice a year, either on an individual or an area-wide basis. This one-day course provides instructions on how to buy ROW using Washington state ROW procedures. Mr. Wright will provide this training within days after a request from a local agency.

This willingness to serve the local agencies with information and training support created a paradigm shift about 10 years ago. Staff at WSDOT illustrated the desire to assist with the project certification process, and communications improved. The result: both WSDOT and the local agencies developed a mutual respect and trust for one another.

During this time, the annual Regional Right-of-Way Conferences in the Northwest were reinstated. A strong component of those conferences is to facilitate training and communication, not only between the four invited states, but also among WSDOT and its local agency partners. Among the techniques used to enhance the communications were long deliberate breaks to encourage mutual professional sharing of issues, which were often important to many of the participants. These sessions, both formal and informal, assisted all entities with sharing technical knowledge and building professional relationships. Examples include inviting consultants and local agencies to the "Charm School training." WSDOT tailored the course toward local agencies to best meet their needs. WSDOT also provided copies of the Local Public Agency Manuals to all local agencies. WSDOT's project-certification attitude illustrates preventative-versus-corrective action. This serves to ensure upfront communication so that the process is followed correctly at project initialization. This attitude circumvented problems arriving near the end of the project, resulting in significant savings of money and time. Not only does WSDOT's management team provide the overall philosophy; it also assists each regional office with technical support on right-of-way issues on an as- needed basis.

4.2 Headquarters, Olympia Service Center Office of Highways & Local Programs

Olympia, Washington

While WSDOT RES Division focuses on technical assistance relating to right-of-way issues, the office of Highways & Local Programs provides engineering, program management, and administrative support to local agencies using federal funding for transportation projects. The service center employs 36 professional in Highways & Local programs. This division works in cooperation with all six WSDOT Regional Local Programs engineers and support staff. This regional engineer provides preliminary engineering, technical advice, and coordinates with RES to assist local agencies with right of way and relocation plans. The H&LP Service Center administers the federal programs for local agencies through the FHWA Stewardship agreement with WSDOT. The management philosophy of H&LP is that of a local agency advocate. They seek to maximize available federal funding for as many local agency projects as possible. The planning, administration, operational and program management assistance available to the local agencies adds value s it addresses local agencies' strategic transportation improvement planning.

4.3 Washington State Department of Transportation, Real Estate Services

Northwest Region

The WSDOT Northwest Region, based in Seattle, contains six and 1/2 counties, includes the major cities of Bellingham, Everett, and Seattle, and encompasses much of Puget Sound. This WSDOT Region has the largest number of local public agencies, approximately eighty-eight, 25 of which are certified for procedures. The 88 local agencies represent cities, counties, and tribes. NWRES has 43 employees in the Real Estate Division, and over the last biennium completed about 20 projects involving 350 parcels, and $37.9 million. Its philosophy is that ROW people represent both the agency and customer, and furthermore are representatives of the state as it oversee the best interests of taxpayers' money.

Out of the 43 employees, one individual spends 100% of his time providing technical assistance and training opportunities to the local agencies in the region. This local agency position provides numerous opportunities for time and money savings for the stakeholders, although, this position a not specifically funded. ISTEA mandates that local agencies within individual states that elect to complete highway projects using Federal appropriations must seek technical assistance from the state.

The Northwest Region is the most populated region in Washington State and, as such, has diversified projects. One project, the Lummi Shore Drive in Whatcom County, was a 4.7-mile segment of Lummi Shore Road involving the Lummi Indian Tribe. This Tribe has obtained ROW procedure certification for project administration and property management. The project entailed 59 parcels and two relocations. Unique challenges exist when securing right-of-way property for highway construction projects on Indian Tribal lands. It requires working across cultural boundaries and through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). For example, of the 59 parcels involved in this project, the Tribe owns 40 parcels in trust. Individual members of the Tribe own the remaining 19 outright. Properties held in trust may result in complicated title ownership issues. For example, right-of-way acquisition of Indian land may include several parcels that may have more than 100 owners each. Obtaining right-of-way properties is difficult to begin with, however this task becomes even more challenging when crossing cultural boundaries.

NWRES, supported by staff at Olympia Service Center RES, has had many meetings with the chief planners from the Tribe. The Tribe requested that one of its members be trained by WSDOT to understand and explain to other Tribal members the project and property ownership procedures. Not only did this help with addressing the language issues, but it also facilitate the understanding of two different cultures. WSDOT allowed Richard Jefferson, representative from the Lummi Indian Business Council, to serve as project negotiator. This added tremendous value as it became clear that Tribal members would respond much better if a Tribal Council member called on them rather than an outsider. NWRES is working with the Lummi Indian Business Council and Whatcom County to complete the two relocations. This project is currently submitted for project certification. This is one more example that relationships work better when trust is involved.

Meeting with the Northwest RES brought a different perspective to this relationship. During conversations with Larry Huggins, local agency coordinator, it was confirmed that Mr. Huggins loves his job. Having the region with the largest number and greatest diversity of local agencies, parks, and Indian Tribes, this coordinator excels in customer satisfaction. "Since all of my time is working with local agencies, you cannot help but develop respect and trust for one another" stated Mr. Huggins. Ms. Deanna Clark-Willingham greeted Mr. Huggins at the Snohomish County office with a warm greeting. Ms. Clark-Willingham is the Real Property Administrator for the county's Department of Public Works. She stated, "It's always a pleasure to see Larry and the staff at WSDOT." According to Ms. Willingham, this was not always the case in the past.

4.4 Washington State Department of Transportation, Real Estate Services

Olympic Region

The WSDOT Olympic Region RES, located within several miles of the Olympia Headquarters, employs ten individuals in its real estate section. This region represents seven counties and has 20-40 local agencies, with at least 15 certified for ROW procedures. Olympic region is currently working on 42 projects and completed $15 million in projects last year. Michael Leitch, Manager of Real Estate Services for this region, described the local agencies as its partners and clients in the ROW arena. According to the Highways and Local Programs Engineer and the local agency coordinator, many of the local agencies did not have sufficient or qualified staff internally to certify ROW projects or complete relocation projects. Olympic RES staff partners with local agencies and assists with real estate appraisal certifications, relocation assistance, and project certification.

The "one for all" team mentality was shown during this study. Instead of boasting about the wonders of the staff at the Olympic region had discussion on the true business at hand, which is to move projects forward to certification that they are ready for construction. This focus was obvious from the moment that the multi-jurisdictional team sat down at the table. The table consensus was, "Let's get this project certified to go to ad."

This enthusiastic attitude permeated the room when highlighting project work completed for the city of Bremerton. This project involved excellent coordination among headquarters, the Olympic region, and the local agency (the City of Bremerton). The project was completed by the City of Bremerton to modify city streets to accommodate the Navy. The project was concentrated in an 8 to 10 block area and was completed on a fast track of two years. The Navy was expanding the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, a large acquisition project involving 100 parcels and relocation of approximately 130 residents and 12 businesses. Jim Bryant, Staff Attorney for the Navy, stated that hiring WSDOT for the 130 displacements was the best decision he made on this job. Captain D.F. Walsh reinforced this opinion in written correspondence to the Secretary of Transportation. Captain Walsh indicated, "...throughout the project, (WSDOT) made suggestions based on experience and expertise that saved all concerned time and money." The estimated cost of the project came in under budget by $1.2 million.

Other important aspects of this project included the quality of service the Olympic region staff provided to its customers-the displaced residents and businesses. Again, the letter from Captain Walsh stressed that the relocations were completed successfully to meet project schedule requirements. WSDOT was on a fast track and dealt with a great number of people in a short time frame. Knowing the people in the area through involvement with community activities and public meetings allowed WSDOT to better illustrate the agency's dedication to the people in the neighborhood. Of particular interest was the relocation of a church built in 1916. Paul Woolson, the local agency coordinator for the Olympic region, made sure that the caretaker of the church was appropriately relocated and had somewhere to go. Woolson and his wife attended the last congregation services at the old church that was followed by a parade involving the whole congregation as they walked down the street to the new church location.

Another good example of community involvement and caring was the services provided for a tenant of an apartment building that was left with no refrigerator and stove. The landlord took these appliances. Woolson, representing WSDOT, went out and purchased a refrigerator and stove that night for that tenant. Communication and teamwork was shown by all, including the Attorney General's office, which assisted with a number of appraisals having issues associated with hazardous waste. The City of Bremerton took a chance hiring the Olympic Region Real Estate Services staff instead of a consultant. This hiring of WSDOT signaled a sign of trust that WSDOT would meet the budget and schedule. Past local agency perceptions were that WSDOT would take care of its own projects first, putting local projects on the back burner. The city opened itself up to possible political criticism because of the magnitude of this job and concerns regarding trust. The city was happy with the project and will probably entrust WSDOT with Phase II, a 24-parcel project to begin in May 2000.

The state did not treat this job any differently than others in its current work-load. The appraisal process was started as soon as the design requirements were known. The right-of-way plan was prepared immediately. WSDOT staff attended public meetings to explain the process and introduce its staff to the public. WSDOT believes its role is to monitor projects, appraisals and relocations and provide assistance as needed. It believes that teamwork and people skills shown by its employees are the most important attributes.

4.5 Washington State Department of Transportation, Real Estate Services

Southwest Region

The WSDOT Southwest Real Estate (SWRES) division has 10 full time employees. During a normal year, this region handles thirty projects that could entail up to 80 parcels per project. Last year, it completed $15 million in right-of-way program activities. The region contains seven counties located in the southwest corner of Washington State and includes the cities of Longview and Vancouver. Mount St. Helens also resides in this region. Sixty local public agencies are located in this region, 10 of which are certified for ROW procedures.

Discussions with WSDOT's SWRES uncovered several important issues to consider when developing a cohesive project work team. This team is, of necessity, composed of many different entities involved with different aspects of the project. While each entity's involvement with the project may address distinct issues, how all the project issues get handled involves the team. These issues include the need for early involvement and up front communication with the entire project team. The levels of project and state uniformity on job processes must be known and followed by all team members. Last but not least, the need for appropriate legal assistance throughout the project is of prime importance. The Mill Plain Project is an excellent example of how SWRES developed this type of cohesive project work team. This team completed a project in record time with great coordination between the WSDOT staff at SWRES, the staff at WSDOT Olympia Service Center, and staff from the City of Vancouver.

The Mill Plain Project is located in the City of Vancouver. This area had a high rate of poverty and crime. Of the 88 persons to be relocated in this project, 60 lived in unsafe apartment buildings. In fact, three different families shared one apartment. In this urban/residential/industrial area, the SWRES local agency coordinator had to be escorted to several dwellings by a plain-clothes police officer for safety reasons, while he hand carried each and every check to the displaced persons.

During this project one of the most challenging tasks was to secure the vacated apartments. This had to be done to prevent the property owner from leasing the apartments to someone else, and to prevent vagrants from moving into the newly vacated dwellings. SWRES and WSDOT Olympia Service Center secured the project relocation costs by using protective rent. Protected rent costs amounted to $100,000, although actual project savings of over $1 million were realized. Once the dwellings were vacated, WSDOT personnel secured the premises to discourage trespassing and vandalism.

Many benefits for others materialized from this project in addition to the development of the public transportation project. The city police and fire departments were able to use the vacated apartment building for training sessions for both firemen and police. The police training involved special weapons and tactics activities for officer training. The fire department used the building to train firemen on appropriate and safe fire fighting methods through the "Burn to Learn" activity. Communication and public involvement through neighborhood associations provided excellent communication tools to assist both SWRES and the City of Vancouver with positive media involvement.

This successful project illustrates what open candid communication and teamwork can do. This team was composed of individuals from the City Council, the Port Commission, the Neighborhood Association, Media, Police, Firefighters, Environmental Professionals, WSDOT Olympia Service Center, the Project Manager from the City of Vancouver, and SWRES. Over a period of 18 months, this group attended monthly meetings at the neighborhood associations and sent out factual newsletters and articles to everyone involved. The City of Vancouver made sure that the police and fire departments and the neighborhood associations received communications and remained involved throughout the project. The City of Vancouver hired a professional full-time Public Relations specialist, who also served as the Project Manager. WSDOT Olympia Service Center backed up SWRES.

Jim Ray, Manager of SWRES noted, "At the initiation of this project, no one would know the outcome of a project of this magnitude. The project grew from the efforts, communication, hard work, listening, and understanding of all parties involved. Although at the beginning of the project people expressed hesitation at the time commitment that would be required, at the end of the 18 month relationship, the group was sad that the project was completed because they would miss the relationships that were formed, the mutual support and respect, and the sense of teamwork that was generated."

4.6 Local Agency, Northwest Region

Snohomish County

Snohomish County Public Works is located in the Northwest Region in Everett, Washington. The representative of Snohomish County is proud that its agency maintains a full certified agency status, for right of way work, although this was not always the case. With this status, Snohomish County can certify its own appraisal reviews and complete its own relocation projects. The agency has grown into this certified agency role as its relationship with WSDOT evolved from one that was sometimes based on fear, to one based upon mutual respect and trust. Snohomish County used to rely on WSDOT to provide appraisal review and relocation services. However, due to WSDOT time constraints, Snohomish County hired the appropriate staff to complete these functions. Snohomish County employs 14 employees in its Real Estate section (4 men and 10 women).

Ten years ago, a visit from WSDOT personnel was more likely to elicit groans rather than cheers. The focus then was on what the local agency was doing wrong, rather than how to find solutions for those issues. Then, things began to change for the better with a new focus on customer service throughout WSDOT's organization. According to Ms. Deanna Clark-Willingham, Real Property Administrator for the Snohomish County Public Works, WSDOT now acts as an advisory consultant offering problem-solving advice, in more of a mentor and protege relationship. Ms. Willingham began her work for the county in 1984, but saw the positive relationship with WSDOT developing in 1986 when Snohomish County funded the Northwest Regional ROW Conference, and invited and encouraged other local agencies to be involved in it. The communication between the parties improved dramatically.

Ms. Willingham stated that WSDOT served in a technical advisory role for Snohomish County by providing local agencies with valuable real estate ROW process training, referred to as "Charm School." This allowed business and personal relationships to develop between Snohomish County and WSDOT personnel that carried over into the work environment. These relationships based upon trust and respect have deepened to such an extent that now Snohomish County sometimes holds the seminars and training sessions for the region. The monthly meetings of the International Right of Way Association (IRWA), the National Highway Institute (NHI) workshops, and the IRWA training classes have served to build the mutual respect that both the Local Agency and NWRES WSDOT staff have for each other.

What Snohomish County reminds us is that it takes time for trust to develop between parties that formerly seen these roles differently. Although the focus on customer service has improved communication between WSDOT and local agencies, it was not an overnight success, and in fact, is still ongoing as the nature and roles of individuals change.

4.7 Local Agency, Southwest Region

Clark County

Clark County Department of Public Works islocated in the Southwest Region in Vancouver, Washington, at the southernmost tip of the state. This county, roughly 1/3 the geographical size of Snohomish County, boasts that it once employed Joachim Pestinger, the current Director of the Real Estate Services Section of WSDOT. Mr. Pestinger's service in the region may have facilitated the adoption of the WSDOT/local agency model, because of the credibility he carries of having worked "in the trenches." This knowledge of regional office realities also provides insight when considering system changes, improvements or process analysis. Clark County has a quality improvement program that involves holding team meetings that usually last 3 to 4 hours. These meetings focus on what Clark County can do differently. Two issues this program identified are: 1) ROW needs to be more involved with design engineers, and 2) Management needs to be more aware of the true project cost of land for acquisition/negotiation and condemnation. The Clark County ROW budget is $7.9 million. The county employs six to seven employees: three negotiators, one appraiser, and three document-closing staff. The county produces a Staff Business Plan that staff reviews monthly. The Plan provides project milestones for scheduling.

Clark County staff believes that WSDOT has lessons to learn regarding the facilitation of this intergovernmental process. For example, Mr. Lowell Weiss, Real Property Service Manager for Clark County Department of Public Works identified the need for the State to speed up the project certification process as one area for improvement saying that, "It should take days not weeks." When asked for opportunities for improvement, Mr. Weiss stated, "If WSDOT did it electronically it could take only days instead of weeks."

Secondly, Mr. Weiss said Clark County would not hire WSDOT to perform subcontracted work. While the State RES employees are qualified and capable, WSDOT has to put state transportation-projects first. Contractual work such as relocation assistance was "worked in" the schedule as a secondary priority. Clark prefers using consultants because of Clark County's lack of office space, computers, and the higher overhead associated with more staff members. Additionally, Clark County prefers to hire consultants because the consultants place the County's project work first. WSDOT recognized this issue some time ago and established a list of several qualified consultants to assist local agencies with workflow. During the interview process, it was comforting to note that Mr. Weiss felt relaxed enough to discuss these issues directly with the SWRES local agency coordinator. The coordinator was also receptive to learn of opportunities for improvement.

Another example of lessons shared between the local agencies, WSDOT, and the FHWA in this county involved the environmental impact statement-more specifically wetland impacts and mitigation credits. The Environmental Species/Endangered Species Biological Assessments can hold up a ROW project for six to 12 months stated Weiss. Although working with right-of-way property for 30 plus years, one can learn many creative ways of working with wetlands in the right-of-way. One example involves a 38-acre parcel that contained wetlands. Clark County purchased this parcel even though the wetlands would not be impacted. These wetlands were banked for future use as wetland mitigation credits, when property taken requires wetland mitigation in a particular watershed area. The parcel cost Clark County $7,000, although the value was later assessed to be $30,000. These creative ways of approaching challenging environmental issues were shared so the process ideas could benefit all parties concerned.

Clark County sells excess property in lieu of liquidating it at Public Auctions. The county pays a real estate agent a 7 percent commission, however the realtor gives Clark County great exposure. Clark County has found that most of the time it receives 25% more for the property than it would otherwise receive from auctions. Advice on getting rid of property as soon as you get it was another important point. Renting is expensive. The money generated from the sales is deposited right back into the project.

Mr. Weiss also expressed the opinion that Clark County does the same transportation project work as WSDOT. In fact, Clark County considers WSDOT employees as a talent pool and has hired relocation experts as needed.

One of the lessons learned from visiting Clark County is that the exchange of employees can lead to greater independence for both parties. These exchanges have allowed for a greater bonding between WSDOT and Clark County by placing in each others organization trusted and talented individuals who lend instant credibility to the other party.

The study was conducted by Quality Environmental Professionals, Incorporated (QEPI), of Indianapolis, Indiana, under contract with the Federal Highway Administration Office of Real Estate Services. Principal Investigator for QEPI was Deborah E. Peters.

The cooperation of the Washington State Department of Transportation and their local public agencies is gratefully acknowledged.

This document is disseminated under the sponsorship of the Department of Transportation in the interest of information exchange. The United States Government assumes no liability for its contents or use thereof. This report does not constitute a standard, specification, or regulation.

Updated: 9/5/2014
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