Conflict resolution in land use planning

Note on how to cite this journal:

Author, Date of the post, WMO Conflict Insight, Title of the post,  ISSN: 2628-6998, 

Land use planning in the public agencies practice dispute resolution through negotiation, facilitation and consensus building methods on a regular basis. It is when the nature and scale of the development proposal is perceived to have adverse impacts on the community, be it social, environmental or economical, that the traditional public input and negotiation processes seem to fail to bring the stakeholders and the community together. Unfortunately, alternative dispute resolution such as mediation has not been utilized by most planning agencies. One argument is that land use planning involves a very complex process governed by many layers of legislations, local laws, regulations and procedures. The obligation to comply with all these requirements creates a very rigid system, and more often than not, the process is driven by political pressure to achieve certain economic goals. Even when mediation is being utilized, it often fails to be an effective conflict resolution process because of the traditionalapproach to the mediation process. 

Land use planning involves making land use decisions that could affect not only citizens in the immediate areas, but also has ramifications for the larger social, physical, and environmental conditions. Looking at the fracking of natural gas proposal in Nova Scotia, much debate was over the impacts of the proposed process on the social, environmental, safety and well-being of the community regardless of the potential economic gain. Another notable example is the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline which turned out to be the most controversial project in North America in recent history. Kinder Morgan Canada’s recent Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in British Columbia continues to face roadblocks from politicians, environmental organizations and especially the First Nations for the project going through the Indigenous communities. 

Land use planning, by its nature, deals with conflicting and competing interests. Regardless of the scale of the development proposal, the NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) reaction can generate much passionate debate even over a small project, such as the construction of a fence between two properties. Land use planners in the public sector have to exercise diplomacy and to negotiate between the development communities and the general public, often in a volatile political environment. The human instinct in a potential conflict situation is to first react defensively before even understanding if any interests have been threatened. Human communication in a conflict environment is driven by passion and impulse which can further escalate an already intense situation.  With the lack of trust and the lack of open and honest communication, situations could become out of control and conflicts could rise to a much more volatile level. 

Working as a land use planner for over eighteen years in different jurisdictions in both the United States and in Canada, I find dealing with conflicts between stakeholders over a development proposal is part of the process, I also find that most conflicts are often over common land use concerns regardless of in which city the conflict takes place. Despite the commonality of the issues, there has not been much of an attempt to change the way local government handles land use conflicts. Some jurisdictions have certainly increased the public outreach effort, while others even incorporate mediation as an alternative dispute resolution process to deal with escalated conflicts. Unfortunately, once those efforts fail, the tendency is to simply defer to the elected official to vote on the development proposals, and no further effort is made to address the unresolved issues.

We need to look at ways to improve or optimize the conflict resolution process particularly in the public sector mainly because land use development, be it a large or small project, is regulated by the local government. Local leaders need to explore the incorporation of mediation as part of land use dispute management process from the public policy perspective. Working in a public sector in the land use regulatory department, I appreciate the importance of having a meaningful public outreach process. As a certified mediator, I also value mediation as an effective alternative conflict resolution method. Unfortunately, not all jurisdictions require the public outreach process from the development community at the onset of the development process, and even fewer jurisdictions provide any form of conflict resolution process to handle land use disputes. There needs to be more public policies that promote both meaningful and effective public engagement and alternative conflict resolution processes in dealing with land use issues.

Even with a mediation process in place, the traditional mediation approach presents limits on dealing with complex and large-scale development proposals, especially when the project impacts a diverse group of stakeholders. There needs to be a conflict resolution approach or program that will bring in various professionals from different disciplines to work collectively with the community and impacted stakeholders to address the conflicts. In other words, establish a consortium of professionals to handle land use conflicts. I think we owe it to the community to provide a much more meaningful conflict resolution process than simply relying on the voting system by the elected officials in a municipality. We need a process that provides a forum for the community and stakeholders to address their concerns with the proponents of the projects, a forum to be facilitated by a neutral third party or third-party professional team. A forum that allows the community to explore mitigation and design issues, a forum that allows for meaningful civic engagement is much more effective than simply debating on whether or not the development proposals meet all land use laws and requirements.

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2 Responses

  1. Very well written, and much to be debated topic as to Land Use dictates by State without hearing public or public opposing economic development projects without deliberations and clarity on the subject involved. legislation on ecological subjects which affects the public at large need to be resolved by public hearing and through proper Mediation. As explained local leaders or political leadership take such opportunities to side step the actual issues and do not go for an harmonious resolutions. For example:- the gas line projects , highway land acquisitions , ecological fragile land act, coastal regulation zone enactments in the State of Kerala, of India are examples in these regard, where the hindrances out of political interfaces, public protest, government dictates , and court interventions often delayed the projects and created much tensions which are unwarranted. In fact a global forum or a national forum with representation from diverse expertise panel with neutrality can be of much help to public at large to form an opinion , and take a position in their arguments and demands as to a project. This is more true as to an age old Dam ( MULLAPPERIYAR) on the HILL top of State of Kerala in India, wherein in the neighboring state TN want to retain the dam , and use the water exclusively leased for years, based on age old document created during kingship, and merits discussed and decided in Democracy . Despite the matter got technical validations as to Dam Safety from supreme court of India, the people of Kerala and their confidence is not looked into, particularly when their demand for international expert study report is denied and often find no support based on the Self belief of NATIONALIST thinking , and on the political structure prevalent . More than any thing , in such context of political lobbying and power politics happening, the judicial verdict too looked with suspicion by marginalized communities, who are living below the hill and the DAM , the probable victims. As such, the argument for a global neutral forum with quality technical experts as Expert DETERMINATIONS and MEDIATORS, can bring peace and prosperity to the communities at large, as in the case I discussed , as well as in the Article. A good topic to be taken forwarded and Deliberated….

    1. Thank you for your comments! I appreciate your taking the time to read the article. I have only practiced land use planning in North America (both U.S. and Canada), and certainly appreciate knowing the different kinds of challenges in other countries. As much as I feel frustrated by some of the politics influencing land use planning, my job is likely a lot easier under a democratic system. Honestly, we do have pretty fair and reasonable laws governing transparency in the review and approval process, and there are strong laws on environmental protection. The issue is that both the government and the development communities prefer to meet just the minimum requirement, and sometimes is just not enough especially on projects that have significant environmental ramifications. The public engagement and outreach processes, especially on complex and large-scale projects are often deficient. The recent expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline which will carry Alberta’s crude oil from Edmonton to Burnaby in British Columbia has been attracting a lot attention due to intense opposition from political parties and the First Nations citing environmental concerns on their lands. The company apparently claimed that they did reach out and negotiated with the First Nations, but the negotiation was allegedly not with the right decision-making body within the First Nations. This led to intense protest from both the environmental group and the First Nations and the groups attempted to block the construction of the pipeline. There are certainly much more to the story and since I just moved back to Canada, I have more fact-findings to do. This is one example of a massive project with environmental consequences but comes with significant economic benefits that even the federal government indicated their support of the project. There are very strong and valid arguments on both sides of the fence, it will be interesting to see how the process transpires under the democratic and capitalistic system.

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