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.