June 17, 2021
Community Matters: Right-Of-Way Professionals as the Voices of our Neighbors
By: Lillian Minix
Have you ever wondered how municipalities acquire land for a road widening project or a new sidewalk? When a city or county is invested in improving its assets, sometimes the process includes turning to the public to purchase pieces of their land. As it turns out, there is an entire field of work dedicated to land acquisitions called ‘right-of-way.’
Many people don’t have access to the behind the scenes when it comes to acquisitions, so I reached out to our right-of-way professionals to dig deeper into their roles at Timmons Group.
Meet Joe Sckinto and Joanne Daniel. This dynamic duo has been working together at Timmons Group since 2017. Their roles as right-of-way professionals may be particular to our industry, but their jobs are significant to community members from all walks of life.
Joe is an experienced project manager in real property. He has worked on projects for Chesterfield County, the City of Hampton, Spotsylvania County, and Hanover County as well as design-build projects for Virginia Department of Transportation and others. Joe attributes some of his developed right-of-way skills to his time working as a Deputy Sheriff. That particular role has given him a background in successfully and effectively working with landowners to achieve a voluntary conveyance of their property.
Joanne is a right-of-way assistant manager and has over 20 years of combined experience in real estate and right-of-way. Her prior experience includes post-closing and document preparations for real estate attorneys, recording documents, searching titles, and recording final documents at courthouses. Joanne owned her own title search company as well before joining the Timmons Group team.
Both of their roles are versatile and loaded with a variety of right-of-way tasks that include acquisition services like title research, document preparations, reading and understanding project plans, and providing correct information to property owners.
So, what exactly is right-of-way? To be quite frank, unless you’ve had a right-of-way agent approach you about your property directly, you may not know.
“The right-of-way work in our world consists of approaching landowners to acquire their property for various types of improvements such as new sewer lines, sidewalks, road widening, and other projects,” Joe says. “There are various stages to a project before right-of-way negotiations can begin. Timmons Group is responsible for survey, engineering design, environmental assessments, and wetland delineation, for instance, and those things need to be completed before our right-of-way agents can go speak to each landowner.”
Sometimes Joe and Joanne are asking property owners if they will surrender 5 feet of their front yard for a new sidewalk. Other times they’re inquiring about larger amounts of property like entire acres at a time.
Because of the nature of their roles, Joe and Joanne are reaching out to neighbors with different backgrounds, perspectives, and insights. And, because each project is so different, the viewpoints that they encounter are expansive.
“We have the opportunity to work with a lot of people,” Joanne says. “Sometimes we’re trying to acquire land for a new sewer pipe that will benefit a neighborhood, but there might be one or two people who have reservations about their municipality’s vision. So, our job is to reassure them that the work that will take place will be advantageous for them.”
Joe and Joanne collectively have worked with over 800 individuals to acquire land since 2017. Of those 800 people, only 15 have not been interested in willingly giving their land for a project’s use. “Joe and I work well together because one of our strengths is that we always put ourselves in the property owner’s shoes,” Joanne explains. “We do our best to understand their feelings and we always offer for them to call us at any point to ask questions and share concerns. And we are certain to never be misleading to our neighbors, we’re always transparent with them.”
Joe and Joanne told me several stories about their interactions with community members that involve relocating family relics or removing meaningful trees. Their anecdotes are very heartfelt, and I immediately understood the gravity of their roles as voices for the community.
“On a rare occasion we’re not able to come to an agreement with a landowner and the municipality steps in to conduct an imminent domain procedure. It can be very hard to watch someone lose part of their land for a city or county project, so we act as a comfort and a voice for those individuals,” Joanne says.
While this duo sometimes speaks with community members who aren’t as keen on their municipality’s updates, more often than not their interactions involve neighbors who are excited about a project coming to life.
“The updates that our civil engineers plan are going to benefit great amounts of people in a neighborhood. They don’t take their jobs lightly and the designs they make are very thoughtful, and just about everyone that we approach understands that,” Joe says.
In addition to ensuring that property owners are fully aware of any updates occurring to their land, Joe and Joanne spend a great deal of time making sure that they are following the laws and advocating for community members.
“You can’t pay someone off to acquire their land,” Joe says. It’s a much more delicate and responsible process than that. Joe explained that there are protocols set in place that protect landowners to ensure their rights are being safeguarded. “Everyone gets audited and there are checks and balances that make sure we’re following the rules and regulations in place. There’s a formula to calculate how much property is worth based on value.”
For a city or county to make capital improvements, like replacing a degraded sewer system or improving a utility easement, the new and necessary plans sometimes require these updates to property lines. All in all, our right-of-way professionals are consistently advocating for our neighbors, and their roles in our community help ensure that everyone is being benefited and that our engineers’ designs come to fruition.
“It can be difficult to get everyone on board sometimes, but at the end of the day we’re there to be a voice for our community members and to share their concerns with our municipal clients,” Joanne says.