Vantage Point: La-la-la, I Can’t Hear You!

Sometimes it seems the biggest job we have is helping clients recognize what it is that they really need, which is not always what they think they need. Or we need to explain that the way they described what they need is not going to result in the desired outcome. We must be educators, and patient ones. They don’t always listen.

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A few years ago, I was asked to help craft a contract for an entity that wanted to partner with a federal agency in order to be eligible for project funding. I expressed skepticism from the start that an agreement could ever be reached. Apparently they expected magic. But the federal agency was inflexible about its one-size-fits-all requirement for a sign heralding federal participation on each property to be acquired. As the acquisitions were primarily 100-foot wide formerly residential properties, the required postings would result in fields disrupted by a grid of six-foot high posts with metal signage. Wetlands, protected from any such installations by regulations imposed by a different federal agency, further complicated the situation. It took months for the wishful applicant to accept that regulatory effects on the project’s end result meant the contract and partnership were not going to work out.

Getting to the failure I warned of up front on recognizing the incompatibility was a painful process (only partly from biting my tongue to not say “I told you so”). But clients who don’t understand the entire scope of what is required—or don’t want to understand—are not rare creatures. La-la-la I can’t hear you: that’s too complicated/too expensive/not what I want!

Years ago, I was asked to answer questions for a developer who thought his surveyor should have warned him of wetlands on the property that would have precluded any of his plans from coming to fruition. Of course, he now stated that he wouldn’t have bought the land if he had known. Was depiction of wetlands a standard and required aspect of surveying in that state? No, it would have had to be asked for specifically. I asked to see the contract. There was none. So, what was requested? The only records were little pink “While You Were Out” phone message notes, some referring to the need for knowing the acreage, nothing relevant to the wetlands question. But testimony preserved in deposition transcripts made it clear the client had been warned by someone else that wetlands should be investigated before buying the land, and basically he had told them to shove off. La-la-la!

A community group concerned about plans to build multiple high-rise apartment buildings in a highly floodprone area asked me for help. After convening an educational forum familiarizing them with their ordinances and the meaning of designations on flood maps, we proceeded to the zoning board meeting after registering to be heard. The developers were given all the time they wanted. We were allotted two minutes each, including the state’s emergency management officer who tried to testify about hazardous flooding rescues. The plan for what was to be luxury condominiums (tax ratables!) was approved. The site flooded twice during construction, sales were not as brisk as anticipated, and the developers converted everything to rentals after buying out the only two purchasers. The site continued to flood regularly, and renters (to whom potential flooding had not been disclosed) did not renew or even complete their leases. La-la-la!

Sometimes the “deaf” one is the attorney. I extracted myself from a contract because neither the lawyer (my direct client, with whom I had a written contract) nor his clients liked my responses to the list of complaints they asked me to address in their suit against the defendant. My report provided technical background information which they clearly lacked. The plaintiffs seemed to expect the surveyor to be a mind reader in terms of possible future changes in floodplain mapping. Further, the surveyor was not responsible for the error in the municipal engineer’s scientifically unsupportable determination of a Base Flood Elevation in the area. I explained how that elevation should have been calculated (it hadn’t been calculated, only extrapolated a whopping 1500 feet from a different site). On fully dismantling 13 of the 14 counts against the surveyor and finding only partial support for the last one, I was accused of “pandering” (their word) to the defendant’s cause. After warning the attorney and plaintiff they would get themselves in trouble if they didn’t understand the facts before asking questions in court to which they didn’t know answers, I formally resigned. La-la-la, they didn’t want to hear their case had little or no merit.

It isn’t easy to accept news we don’t like, or to admit we don’t know something, or to admit that we are wrong. But the alternative may be to suffer calamity by being clueless. Listen, ask, repeat.

About the Author

Wendy Lathrop, PS, CFM, CFS

Wendy Lathrop is licensed as a Professional Land Surveyor in NJ, PA, DE, and MD, and has been involved since 1974 in surveying projects ranging from construction to boundary to environmental land use disputes. She is a Professional Planner in NJ, and a Certified Floodplain Manager through ASFPM.