On this week’s edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation, conversations about the negotiations and efforts to honor the rights of landowners while developing transportation projects.
First, Teresa Vanis, manager of the real estate services section at MDOT, talks about her vast experience helping property owners with the acquisition process.
She explains the laws and policies governing government land acquisition and myriad protections built in for property owners in federal law and the State of Michigan’s Uniform Condemnation Procedures Act of 1980.
Later, Mohammed Alghurabi, MDOT’s senior project manager on the Gordie Howe International Bridge, makes a return visit to the podcast and shares what he’s learned in several years of communicating with landowners and others affected when roads and bridges are built.
Jeff Cranson: This is the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm your host, Jeff Cranson. Today I'm going to be talking about the topic that touches many of us but few of us really understand and that's real estate acquisition for transportation projects. First, I'll be speaking with Teresa Vanis, who manages the real estate services section, and that will be speaking with Mohammed El Gravy, a repeat visitor on the podcast. He's the senior project manager for the Gordie Howe International Bridge project and has had a great deal of experience dealing with property owners in the acquisition of land for various projects across the state, but most notably the Gordie Howe National Bridge going back several years. So again, today I'm with Teresa Vanis, who is the section manager for real estate at MDOT and has been involved in real estate acquisition for a number of years and I wanted to talk with her today about just what goes on when it comes to negotiating and buying property for various infrastructure projects. I think a lot of people would be surprised to know I have been at how the law has evolved over the years and the protections for property owners are strong. But even besides that, it isn't always about the law and the rules and the policies it's about human beings dealing with other human beings and treating them with respect, and I've just been very impressed with everything that MDOT has done. So having said that, thank you, Lisa. Welcome to that.
Teresa Vanis: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Cranson: So, let's start a little bit with your background and your career trajectory in this area.
Vanis: Yeah. So, I have been with MDOT full time since 1990. I started out as a student assistant and actually the Office of Governmental Affairs in 1988 worked there for two years. And then when I graduated from MSU. I took a full-time position it in real estate and have held a number of positions in both our Central Office and some of our region offices. I've worked in the Metro Region Office and the Grand Region office throughout my career at MDOT so worked in all the excess property area, the acquisition relocation. Local agency oversight area I managed the access property for years from then. Most recently, my position is the real Estate Services section manager. That's a different experience in real estate over the years with MDOT.
Cranson: Yes, absolutely. And so, you came in working in government affairs, so probably made a lot of people that were new to the department you kind of vaguely knew that dot have to acquire land to do all the things that they do in terms of building infrastructure, but you probably just were, were overwhelmed by all that you learned in a short amount of time as you got into real estate. What? What do you think? What? What sticks with you? That really kind of opened your eyes. Back then.
Vanis: Well, I mean, most people are really surprised to hear that, that the Michigan Department of Transportation has a real estate area. They, you know, it's very surprising. And obviously I was too, and you know, just learned when I came in all different rules, regulations and things that MDOT to follow when it goes into running the real estate area and how we acquire property and how we also dispose of property. So, in also through the years learning about you know it's about the people as well. It's not just about you know the projects and making our letting days obviously that you acquire property in order to do so but also, knowing that we're dealing with people and how we deal with people and being kind of on the frontline and real estate in and having that be the interaction for people to know what the department and real estate is about.
Cranson: So, going back to the earliest days of government land acquisition and the stories that we hear, you know about the roads. In 19th century, the way that they acquired property and then looking at how things have evolved, just I guess talk about that and the history and how much better I guess, and I think how much more respect we show for the people with whom we're negotiating.
Vanis: Yeah, definitely. So, we do have a presentation that we call a ‘real estate 101’ and it's an opportunity to give people in the department. That chance to learn about real estate and how we how we do it. And one of the slides that I show is you know, a picture of a house with a pan over it and you know, that's a lot of times the perception that people have that, you know, we're the big bad government and we're coming in and we're just going to, you know, take the property. And there's really no recourse for them, and I think that's probably obviously I wasn't around back then with the railroads, but I think that's how things were done at the time. But you know people don't realize and MDOT, the real estate folks, especially in the regions, do a really good job of explaining the process and explaining that real estate there’s certain laws and regulations that we have to follow. So, I mean it, it really comes down to at the very beginning, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It specifically states that, you know, no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without the process of due law. So right there it talks about we can't just because we want to, and then it also talks about in the Constitution that no private property can be taken without just compensation. So again, you know, we can't, we have to make sure that a property owner is compensated for. So, in my mind that the Constitution is kind of the framework for how and what we do our jobs and then there's also federal and state laws that we have to follow and the federal law it, it's what we follow is called it’s a mouthful. So, I'll say it all, but it's called the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property acquisition policies act of 1970 and we commonly referred to it either as the Uniform Act or the URA that regulation was put into effect, it's something that we have to follow anytime we have a project that has federal funds. And it basically is making sure that we're providing fair and equitable treatment to all people displaced on a project. So, the big thing is the uniform making sure that everyone is treated uniformly. We can't just say, well, we like this group of people better. So, we're going to do this. And we like this group of people. So, we're going to do that. It's making sure that you know it's establishing that uniformity and equitable treatment of property owners on a project. There is also the state law that we have to follow that just provides what the procedures are when we're acquiring property under the threat of eminent domain.
Cranson: So yeah, that's I was going to talk about the, the Michigan Act of 1980, which I guess dovetails with the Federal Act 1970, right?
Vanis: Correct. Yeah.
Cranson: So, what is just compensation mean I you know was involved often early on as we were. Property for the Gordie Howe National Bridge and dealt with a number of residents and homeowners in that neighborhood. So, talk about the policies and just what just compensation means.
Vanis: Oh, basically, you know, before we acquire a property, right, when we go out there and we have a project, and we determine we need to acquire either a permanent property, right, or an easement, or even a temporary property, right. Basically, we're required to determine what just compensation is. And so that's basically looking at the property and determining through either a, an appraisal and an appraisal review or some type of market study or valuation analysis What the value of the property is, and so prior to acquiring that or making a written good faith offer is what we typically call it. We must determine what that just compensation is. And so, it is basically based on that appraisal or that market study determining what the property is valued at for the use that we needed for.
Cranson: Do you find that people are surprised not only maybe their property owners, but even when you talk to family and friends about what you do and you know those terms sound so ominous, eminent domain condemnation going to your point earlier, it really does sound like, you know, the big hand of government is going to come in and take your property and you know you don't have any say in the matter. So, what have you found in terms of when you start to explain to people how they react?
Vanis: You know, obviously it depends on the individual and who you're dealing with. But for the most part. I think people are very nervous initially when we when they get a call or they hear from MDOT or they hear that a project coming and so it's our job to, you know, explain the situation explain the project explain what's going to impact them and then also explain you know all the jargon and terminology we use you know obviously yes. Eminent domain or condemnation sounds awful, but you know typically when, especially for residential property owners when they understand the benefits and what they may be eligible for. And it just to the compensation are going to be relocated for a project. Umm, some of the relocation benefits that they're eligible for and what happens typically. What we found is they're a lot happier after, you know, initially they might not be, but usually once we work with them, the acquisition agent and the relocation agent explaining the processes and really just kind of treating them as people. You know, understanding that you know they have questions, and they may ask the same questions several times, but you know, we're used to dealing with this terminology we're used to what we do, and so we really have to explain to them and make sure that they're comfortable with the process and answer any questions they may have.
Cranson: Yeah, that takes tremendous patience, yeah and coming up later I’ll to be talking to Mohammed Alghurabi, the senior project manager on the about that more specifically the relationship. Building that goes on ahead of a big project like that. I mean, you know, following the NEPA process and all the other things that that have gotten dot you know need to do for a while there, you know for a few years, you know most of the work and that was. Just kind of fixing things, you know, repaving, resurfacing, there weren't a lot of projects given the ongoing. You know, financial struggles and underfunding of transportation. So, there wasn't a lot of new stuff to build, but that required a lot of property acquisition. But the Gordy Howe has obviously been a big one with, you know, hundreds and hundreds of parcels. And I've been amazed at watching you know your staff and Mohammed and when they talked to people like you said, oftentimes they're relieved and, you know, happy to find out what they're going to get, you know, in terms of relocation and what they're going to get for their property to the extent where, you know, I find sometimes they're like comforting Mohammed, you know, like it will be OK, Mohammed, you know, we'll be OK. You know? So. So I'm talking about the satisfaction that you get out of, you know, feeling like you took care of people.
Vanis: Oh, yeah, definitely. I it. What you said reminds me I had an acquisition that I did probably more than 10 years ago. But it was a very, you know, difficult acquisition. There was a lot, there was the property owner had a son that had disabilities and you know it was a very long process. And at the end I mean like you know, hey, can I give you a hug? This was great. I really appreciate it. So, there is that satisfaction of seeing someone that you know in the beginning, they’re upset you know, some in there about what's going to happen and know what you know going to live. I mean, you know, you really have to put yourself in their shoes when you're, especially if you're taking someone’s house, you know, this is where they grew up. This is where they raise their family. Understanding their concerns and working with them and trying to treat them as the, you know as fairly as possible under the regulations that you have to work with them and so seeing them usually on the other side of that situation, you know, in a different house that they're happy with, it is very fulfilling and a lot of times you know. We just have to listen, you know, taking the time to listen to their concerns and understanding and it's a good feeling when it's when you've made someone happy at the end of the process and then you've also, you know, got the project going in the right direction in terms of having the right of way needed to build the project.
Cranson: Sounds to me like. You would tell somebody getting into this field if they were to rank the top ten traits, you know, necessary to be successful, that it probably wouldn't come to mind right away because they weren’t taught this in school, or they went to school for, and it would be empathy.
Vanis: Oh definitely. You have to understand, you know you, you know, yes, you're there to do a job, you're there to secure the right of way necessary for a project, but you know a lot of times I'll tell when we're doing this real estate 101 a lot of different presentations to project managers or engineers. You know, I understand the lines on the paper, but you know we also have to understand these are people who we are dealing with and they're not always on our timeline. You know, they may be going through. You know, health issues or divorce or death in their family, and so they're not always, you know, going to respond in the manner or the timelines that we want them to. So just understanding that and working with that and try to help with the needs of the project and making the letting schedule is, is something that, you know, all of our real estate staff do and. And they do a really great job of that.
Cranson: So, talk about the process, how it's gone for, you know, for the most part, there's obviously been some ups and downs, but overall, it's been successful and rewarding acquiring the land for the Gordie Howe.
Vanis: Yeah, you are looking back. So, I think there was somewhere north of 600 parcels, and you know that is definitely the biggest project and that has ever had, at least in my career. I think in in all of MDOT and it was really unique because there was such a difference of part, you know, of properties there was, you know, commercial property, industrial property, residential property, there's some vacant property that was owned by the City of Detroit in the Michigan Land Bank and so obviously, you know, in the many years that we've gone through and worked on the acquisition, we're down to just a very few that are still in the eminent domain process. But you know all the residential property owners have been successfully relocated and so we're doing well on that.
Cranson: Well, that’s great. It's been, it's been interesting and rewarding to watch how it's worked, and I know you and other people who worked on this will take great pride in a couple of years when the bridge opens and you know that you, you know, played a part.
Vanis: Absolutely. I am looking forward to that day when we can, when we can see that bridge open. Yeah.
Cranson: Well, thank you, Teresa. This is this has been interesting. I appreciate you taking time to talk about it. I think it feels back the cover and some of what goes on in this process and hopefully it's helpful to people to understand.
Vanis: Well, thank you. I enjoyed being here.
Cranson: We'll be right back. Stay tuned.
MDOT Announcement: Have you ever ridden with someone who turns down the music when they’re driving through an unfamiliar situation? What do you to make sure you’re alert when you’re approaching a work zone? Everyone should slow down, pause your conversation and follow posted traffic signs. Do whatever it takes to avoid distraction. Keep Michigan work zones safe for construction crews and your passengers.
Cranson: So welcome back. And now I'm with Mohammed Alghurabi, the senior project manager for the Gordie Howe International Bridge, and he's a veteran of and projects and has been involved in lots of discussions with residents and property owners over the years for various projects. But I wanted to talk to him, mostly about what he's doing right now or has done with the Gordie Howe International bridge. And I've joked in the past that. When Mohammed deals with a lot of times with such empathy and such compassion that they end up comforting him. So, Mohammed talk about why it's so important to establish the relationships and just treat people with kindness in this process.
Alghurabi: Thank you, Jeff, and yes, I believe it is vital. It's natural. I mean, I tell myself; well, I have to be compassionate. The compassion and the kindness and treating people like you want to be treated. It's natural. I mean, when you work in in, in, in a community, and it's not your neighborhood. It's not your backyard. You really have to be so respectful and put yourself in their shoes. And how would you feel if that was you would have a government employee? Do you knock on your door and say I wanna help from the government. I'm here to help you. So, you know, you really want to give them that comfort that looks, I'm not just-yes, I am a government employee. Yes, I'm a public servant. But above all that I am someone who cares about you. And I will be there, God willing to walk you through it. And I think Jeff that’s probably the best thing that ever happened to me. In particular, I consider myself very fortunate. It's not I came twenty years ago, 18 years ago, and I said I will do A, B and C and then I disappear, and they have to deal with somebody else. I was there and I am there, and I will be there. God willing, so that I think in my mind helped quite a bit, that it's the same face and they don't have to go and engage someone new.
Cranson: I just have learned so much in this process, as we worked on the Gordie Howe, in the earliest days before it was even the Gordie Howe, you know, it had a series of names but when things got serious as things began. Watching not just real estate services section people. But you, even though you're not in real estate as a project manager, so much of what you have to do is gain that trust and establish those relationships with people in the neighborhood, you know, talk more specifically about that and what you’ve done to get us to where we are with that project.
Alghurabi: I think you know, again, we like any other project or like any project you get, you get involved with, there will be issues and Jeff I'm thinking of Clark was a great example. This is as of recent. So, I'm not going back several years. I'm going back several months, maybe we there were issues. Closing Clark Street was not an easy thing, and basically, they created some issues with, for example, coordinating with the company that does the garbage pickup, making sure that if you God forbid you had one on me and now you have to have water. Shut off. What do you do? And what is that going to impact the community when you close a road that trucks usually uses. And now suddenly, the trucks cannot go because it's supposed to close. But they go ahead and use it anyway and you have kids in the neighborhood and the kids now are at the moms and dads are worried about their kids with trucks getting lost. That is a lot for the community to deal with. So, talking to the community leaders and being able to give them the time to express themselves, tell you about what's going on. But also working with the contractor and remind them that this is really their livelihood. This is not just, you know, you're checking the box and saying, oh, OK, we'll make sure the trash gets picked up. No, this is vital. Cannot wait two days because we all know we want our trash picked up the day that it's supposed to be picked up. So again, you really have to follow up, talk to them as you remember, we had, like, almost like a town hall where we were able to listen to their concerns and take those concerns with the contractor. For example, ensuring that. The dust is being taken care of. If you remember that was a hot summer and it was a dry and things were getting very dusty, and you know the air was not clear and was not clean. So, we wanted to ensure that that all get taken care of and really the proof was in the pudding when we had a second and third down holes by the time, we did the third one, it was it was so awesome to know that most people were like, yeah, I think it’s being taken care of and so follow keep word be honest, be real. You know, that's really these are all the characteristics that you have to follow.
Cranson: Something that Teresa talked about was that people are obviously nervous. Fear the worst. They're familiar with ominous terms like eminent domain and condemnation, and then often they end up being relieved or even happy when they find out what their compensation will be and relocation costs. And that's been the case I mean, not always, but often with the Gordie Howe footprint, right.
Alghurabi: Oh, absolutely. I mean, and again, the proof was in the pudding. I think when we were first started and they start hearing about what we're going to do, they were concerned, they were scared. They were frightened. But I think as time went by and people start experiencing a working with people that are kind people that are caring, compassionate. They're not just someone that you don't even know who they are. They like face to face and in other words, to meet with the with the individual, meet one-on-one with the property owner and try to listen to their needs and address their needs. All of that goes into the trust factor. We never get anybody to trust us until they feel they get the reason for. For them to trust us. So, we've earned their trust. And when we've earned their trust, especially with their community leaders, that really goes a long way because then the community leaders can go to their residents, to their, you know, neighborhood and tell them about us that, you know, there's nothing to worry about because I'm that stands by their words. An adult is got a great reputation and here's why not just declaration without proof. But it's really the proof is in the pudding.
Cranson: Well so, you know, you learned this over the years. This isn't anything that you know, they taught you in engineering school. What would you advise someone who's going to get into like the kind of level of project management or into real estate acquisition for DOT or really any government agency? And would you tell them like number one characteristic you say that you would need to either have or a skill you need to develop?
Alghurabi: Jeff, I promise you as you know me by now, I'm not bothering you up by saying what I'm about to say, but the Are you ready? The bottom line is there's only one thing you need to remember it. Communication. It's all about communication. Yesterday I was at the public meeting our quarterly public meeting in Detroit, and I was talking to another fellow contractor, actually one of the people that I work with on a regular basis, and we were talking about, you know, the lessons learned how to get better, and we've all seen communication is the number one ingredient for success. If you wanna be successful right now, we're talking transportation. But I believe in any field is communication. You cannot do anything because we all know it sounds like a cliche or sounds like something so intuitive that you do, like why even mention it? But if you don't communicate. And communicate effectively and over communicate. Then you're really missing out big time. So, if we need to communicate the community really commands that I mean in a special way. Meaning don't give me the silent don't do things neighborhood and walk away and not tell me what you're doing. If you remember the water shut off. All they wanted is. OK, so you hit a water main. Tell me about it. You don't just go on trying to fix it and you're in your mind all good. But you failed to really tell me and notify me immediately. So, to me, communication is the only tool in the toolbox. So, for me, I'm what I'm saying is if you if you missed that I don't know what other tools you going to look for you. They're not going to be as effective.
Cranson: No, I think that applies to so many things. Whether you're on the freeway and traffic is stopped and you don't know why, you just wanna know you want. You know, it's a dynamic message signs Are available if there's another way now with information through Google or ways you know mapped right into your vehicle through your own last system. You know what's going on. The construction and something else, or if you're sitting on the tarmac, you know, on the plane isn't doing anything. And nobody's, you know, talking to you, you know, from the cockpit to say here, here's why we're waiting. Most people just want to know, and they'll be understanding if you tell them what's going on. So, I get what you're saying. But trust me, I don't. I don't feel like you're. You're buttering me up just because you know my job is in, you know, communications and kind of the official sense and media relations. I think you're right. It's so important and it's not something that is taught enough in schools and the people who are going to succeed in doing what you do, it's not going to be because of their skills with math or their skills, that mapping out projects, it's going to be because of that ability to communicate and talk and connect with people. So, yeah. Well, well said on your part. So, what else is we look forward, I guess with the Gordie Howe, the land acquisition is largely done; just to talk about how things are going, and you know how excited you are about. You know, being down there for an opening in a couple of years.
Alghurabi: Well, I encourage all your listeners who please if you have not gone to the Gordie Howe Bridge website, please do. There are so many videos, photos, renderings that are posted on a regular basis. I think just in the last couple days there has been new. A video done by drone that that is just phenomenal. Well, the tower is right now. The towers, I should say both towers on the US and in Detroit and Windsor are reaching between 500 and 550 feet high and that. There's a huge significant milestone. Not only that, but also because the unbeliever method or doing a lot and awarding it by column work to support it until we start stringing the stays. But by the end of the year, God willing, fingers crossed we're going to start working in the water like across the. So, to that milestone, start building the deck you know that is a huge milestone, but not only that, when you when we're talking about the US port of entry Jeff, we have five buildings and each of those customs and you know, and inspection buildings, whether it's Fish and Wildlife building or the Department of Agriculture or you name it or secondary or the main building, all of those, all five are in different stages. But they all are moving in the right direction and it's getting done while bridge is doing a great job. Uh, the progress is a tremendous and on the Michigan interchange, I think we finished four out of the five bridges and we're continuing to do get all of them done. But not only that, but we're working also on their land bridges. Those are the main ramps. That connects I-75 into the port of entry, and those are very long and very significant. And they're all being built as we speak. So, as you look around in the project bridge or the Michigan interchange there is tremendous progress and I give a lot of credit to all the teams that team entire team that is working on the project because you know the work is tremendous.
Cranson: I should point out we talked about you know. Through the deck that there won't be any peers or supports in the river, when this is all done. That was part of an agreement early on that the bridge would span the river without disrupting navigation of river traffic or the environment. So that's a good thing.
Alghurabi: Absolutely. That is exactly correct. And most people they say, well, you're going to be in the water while you're constructing the main span and we're like, no, we're not. We're going to do it all from top. So, there isn't any disruption to the navigable waterway. And that's the way Coast Guard wanted it. That's the way we're doing it.
Cranson: Yeah, well, thanks for having. It's good to catch up on this. It's been a while since we had you on to talk about it, and obviously we'll have some more updates as the project goes on. But I especially wanted to talk about this in the context of a real estate acquisition. So, this was very helpful.
Alghurabi: Thank you.
Cranson: Thank you again for listening to this week. Addition of the talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I also want to thank Randy, dealer, for his work producing this week's podcast, Jesse Ball Combat Social Media coordinator who proofreads the show notes and helps with all kinds of things related to getting this done every week, and Courtney Bates who does a great job putting the podcast together in a format so it can be posted and Sara Koenigsknecht in our office who also helps with the production and the transcription of the podcast.