Negotiation and Compromise in Local Agency Land Use Decisions – Have We Gone from Golf to Ice Hockey

Updated: Mar 9

by Stephen G. McCutchan

I tried to think of what might be the most civil sport? Hmmm, golf or tennis? Let's say golf. John McEnroe took tennis off the list.

What is the least civil sport? Ice hockey comes to mind. Lots of room to disagree, but you get my point.

If you spend a lot of time in front of Planning Commissions and City Councils, you will have noticed that negotiation and compromise in land-use decisions have dropped like a stone. Not every decision was negotiated to a compromise, but most were.

There is a decline in the art of negotiation and compromise. Like what we see on the national stage, local governments often no longer see negotiation and compromise as part of land use and zoning decisions. There was an unspoken agreement that negotiation and compromise would provide the best solution in the past. With negotiation and compromise, everyone got up from the table with something better than when they sat down. Today, not the case.

Here are some thoughts to consider about the decline in negotiations and compromise.

People today don't know how to negotiate and compromise.

Negotiation is a science, an art and a process. Negotiation is work. Today, most people haven't been taught, nor do they regularly negotiate. When was the last time you spent an entire day haggling with a car salesman? If people don't know how to negotiate and are uncomfortable doing it, then they will not do as a Planning Commissioner or a City Council member. If you believe that there is a chance you may lose a negotiation because you don't know how to negotiate and you see compromise as a loss, you are going not to negotiate and compromise to avoid the chance of embarrassment.

Compromise has become synonymous with weakness and loss.

Henry Clay, a Kentucky Senator from the early 1800s, is known as the "The Great Compromiser." If Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell were dubbed The Great Compromiser, he'd never get re-elected. Today’s mindset, only losers compromise.

What should we do?

First, land developers and home builders need to renew their efforts to engage local agency decision-makers and staff in negotiations. Many have given up the idea of trying to strike a deal through negotiation and compromise. We need to go back to the table.

Second, don't assume you're going to negotiate and compromise in one hour or on the same day. Negotiations and compromise require patience, and the bigger the ask, the longer the time frame.

Third, be open to new ideas and methods to negotiate and compromise. Rather than having a bottom line, have a set of reasonable gives that will show that you have come to the ability to compromise.

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by Stephen G. McCutchan