The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, May 11, 2012

Landowner Fun!

I am currently engaged in a project to evaluate the potential for changes to a transmission line to impact cultural resources.  Translation:  I'm walking along, underneath power lines*, looking for archaeological sites.

The thing about power line surveys is that they tend to take you across alot of privately-owned land.  Now, to be clear, we are walking in existing easements, meaning that we are on land that the landowners knew was used by the utilities companies when they bought the land, so out presence shouldn't come as too much of a surprise.  Nonetheless, these types of projects tend to produce some unpleasant interactions with land owners.

Note one thing - I am not going to talk about any interactions with landowners that I have had during this project.  For a variety of reasons, this would be unprofessional, and I'm not going to do it.  However, I can speak about past projects, ones now long-since resolved and where describing these interactions will not create a problem, provided that I don't actually tell you who (other than me) was involved, or where they occurred.  Okay?  Okay.

Actually, come to think of it, note another thing: I am actually sympathetic to the landowners.  I'd be taken aback too if I saw strange people wandering on my land, even if I knew that the utlities company had an easement.  It's a bit weird and alarming to see strangers in an area where you anticipate nobody that you don't know, and I get why they can be a bit irate.  For this reason, I do a few things to try to make it clear that we are not sneaking onto their land or trying to get away with anything.  I wear a bright-orange safety vest, and I make all members of my crew wear similar vests, so that we will be clearly visible.  Whenever we pass near a building, I try to keep an eye open to see if there are any people out, and if there are, I at the very least wave to them, and if feasible, I'll walk over and talk to them, letting them know who I am and what i am up to.  If our project area passes near a house's main entrance, I will try knocking on the door to let the land owner know that I am there.  And, on rare occasion, when I have a phone number, I will call ahead of time to let them know that I am coming.

When we encounter landowners, there's, somewhat surprisingly, usually no issues.  Most of them see that we are trying to be visible, and while they may not be happy about us being there, they understand that they did buy land with an easement**, they get that we are there because our bosses sent us there, and they are perfectly polite to us.  Nonetheless, there is still occasional confrontation.  Interestingly, the confrontation usually moves in a predictable way, almost as if it had been scripted ahead of time.  Here's a common example:

Landowner:  Why are you sneaking onto my property?

Me:  Hello.  We're not sneaking on, I apologize if this came off that way.  We were told that [my client] had notified all landowners that we would be through here.  Also, we are wearing safety vests to be visible to all landowners so that you can be sure that we are not deviating from the line's route.

Landowner:  Oh, so [my client] thinks it can send people to sneak onto my land?

Me:  As I say, to the best of my knowledge, [my client] notified landowners.  I apologize if you did not receive notice...

Landowner:  Nobody told me you'd be here!***

Me:  Would you like us to leave?

Landowner:, I guess you should finish your work.

It is, in my experience, always good to offer to leave when confronted by the landowner, as they will almost never ask you to - they know that the easement exists and they don't have a right to keep utilities crews off of the lines - but this puts them into a position where they can not honestly claim that you were rude, pushy, or otherwise troublesome.  On the off-chance that they ask you to leave, it becomes the utility company's job to deal with them, and they utility company has more time and money (and ways to avoid firearms) to dedicate to it than you do.

In other cases, the landowner is indifferent to us doing our work, but they do not grasp that, as a contractor, I am not in a position of authority with the utility company, and complaining to me won't solve whatever dispute they have with the utility company.

For example...

Landowner:  What are you doing out here?

Me: We're doing [appropriate-level description of what we're doing] on the transmission lines.

Landowner:  What is [my client] planning on doing?

Me: They are [insert description of project that my client allows me to provide to people].

Landowner:  Oh yeah?  Well, last time YOU GUYS came through, you [thing that landowner blames my client for].

Me:  Yeah, that sounds bad.  I'm sorry that that happened, but I'm a contractor to [my client], not their representative.  I don't know anything about what happened before.

Landowner:  Really?  So, then, how are you going to keep it from happening again?

Me:  Like I say, I'm a contractor, I don't know anything about [bad incident], I wasn't around for that.  I don't know why it happened.  You'll need to talk with [client public contact for project].

Landowner:  No, you are here now, you are part of [my client], you are going to answer for THIS!

Me:  I am not part of [my client], I am a contractor.  I am here to do [appropriate level of description of my task], and nothing else.  I don't know anything about your concern, and can't help you, as much as I would like to.

Landowner:  This is what's wrong with [my client] - you all want to kick the can to someone else!

Most people are perfectly capable of grasping the difference between a contractor and a company's representative.  But every now and again, you'll get one of these people who either can't or doesn't want to grasp that yelling a single-service contractor about something outside of their service area is both futile and stupid.

Oh well.

There are also landowners who will try to challenge us on the utility company's need to have someone on their land - even though they will freely admit that they bought the land knowing that it had an easement.

These conversations go something like...

Landowner:  What are you doing on MY land?

Me:  We're contractors to [my client].  We're doing transmission line surveys for [description we're allowed to give].

Landowner:  Oh, and so [my client] needs to be on MY land for that, do they?

Me:  I don't know the technical specifications.  As I say, I'm here for [appropriate description], and a construction person would need to answer your question.  [client's point of contact] could help you out.

Landowner:  So, you don't want to tell me what is going to happen on MY land!

Me:  I can't tell you because I don't know.  Like I say, a construction person could explain how they're going to [description of work] and where they'll need to be for it.

Landowner:  Then why isn't a construction person the one out here?

Me:  Because a construction worker can't do my job.  I have to be out here.

Landowner:  So, YOU don't want to answer my question!

Me:  I did answer your question to the best of my abilities.  You'll have to speak with [client's point of contact].

Landowner:  So, [my client] thinks that they need to be on MY land to [project description, usually mangled].

And the conversation just spins in circles for a while until they get bored and/or figure out that I am neither going to feel intimidated by them, nor fly off the handle and give them reason to complain to my client.

Then, of course, there's the ones who mean well, and are perfectly polite, but who simply don't understand that you have a job to do, and it would be easier to do without them stepping into the middle of it.  Oh, and these people also don't understand what it is that you actually do.  Here's an example from my early days in archaeology, when I worked with one of the few remaining colleges that still sent archaeologists out to do basic CRM work...

Me:  Hi, we're from Cabrillo College.  We're here to do the survey.

Landowner:  Oh, yes!  So, what is it that you're looking for?

Me:  Well, we're archaeologists, so we're looking for artifacts, bedrock mortars, things like that.

Landowner:  Oh, so, are you going to be looking for earthquake fingers?

Me:  What's an earthquake finger?

Landowner:  Oh, you know.  There's also some interesting rocks around back, they seem to be coming out of a layer in my garden, and I think they're unusual in this area.

Me:  Oh!  No, you're thinking of geologists.  They study rocks and soils.  We're archaeologists, we're just looking for evidence of past human remains - so the sites of old villages or hunting sites, stuff like that.

Landowner:  Well, these rocks are interesting, and you might want to look at them.

Me:  Do they look like they were made into tools?

Landowner:  Oh, now, they're much older than people.  But they look kind of volcanic to me, so someone in your line of work would be interested.

Me:  Ma'am, as I said, we're not geologists.  We're only interested in rocks is they have been modified by humans.

Landowner:  Right, yeah, yeah.  So, anyway, those rocks might be important.  Also, I assume that you are going to be looking for earthquake fingers!

She proceeded to follow us around for the next hour, talking constantly about the damn rocks (which turned out to be old chunks of concrete) and "earthquake fingers" (which I believe was the mutant power of one of the X-Men).  We could have gotten the work done in half of the time if she had left us alone.

Anyway, there you go, landowner encounters are fun!

*And, no, I am not worried that this will somehow cause me to get cancer, for I am scientifically literate and know how to look up studies to find out what claims are bullshit.

**Most of the easements that I have walked are for lines that are 70+ years old, so while there may be the occasional person who inherited land with the easement, the vast majority bought the land knowing full well that there was an easement.

***While I suspect that some landowners are sometimes not notified, I have often been holding a signed letter stating that we are allowed on the land by the person claiming that they were not notified.  On other occasions, I have spoken with landowners on the phone the night before to make sure that they were okay with our presence, only to have them tell me the next day that they never received notice.  In other words, while this is sometimes probably true, I have unfortunately learned that most people lie about not having been notified.

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