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Tailoring Your Engagement Approach to Regulatory Agencies for Better Project Outcomes  

Each regulatory agency and each level of agency – federal, state, and local — has its own distinct objectives, processes, and influencers that can greatly impact projects. Engaging with your regulatory agencies and cultivating healthy, productive relationships with them can help you become familiar with how they function and optimize your chances of minimizing surprises and streamlining your next project.

While there are no hard and fast rules when considering the differences between agencies, there are a few general things to consider about each:

Local agencies (townships, cities and counties)
  • Local agencies can be unique in their operation and more highly subject to local influences
  • Their decision processes may be more flexible or less defined than their state and federal counterparts. We advise you to identify the influencers within local agencies. These are the decision makers that can move projects forward or hold them back. These may be elected officials but may also be staff such as zoning office personnel.
State agencies
  • State agencies are less like federal agencies than most realize, and opportunities to influence outcomes can be significantly increased by building those positive relationships.
  • One of the challenges facing state agencies is finding the balance between jobs, growth, and business, and environmental and human health protection. While prioritizing both outcomes is ideal – many disagree on how to achieve that balance.
  • Transparency and consistency are critical to state personnel, but the processes that support these can be challenging. Being in non-compliance with environmental permits immediately puts you at a disadvantage and reduces your potential leverage with state agencies. Make every effort to stay in, or return to, compliance. This will also highlight the soundness of your operation to your regulator.
  • Involve the state early in your project planning process. They can provide valuable regulatory insight and help you reduce the future regulatory burden of the project.
Federal agencies
  • Federal agencies can be more challenging to connect and interact with compared to state and local agencies. This can be for a number of reasons including policy, workload, priorities, etc. Continue to make every effort to reach out.
  • Generally, unless they have a specific (legal or programmatic) responsibility, federal agencies will defer to the state for resolution of issues, permits, etc. So, if you find that they are interested in you or your project for unknown reasons, it may by in your best interest to quickly find out why.
  • Show your work. It’s important to document your efforts not only regarding permit and compliance-related issues but also the efforts you have made to connect with federal agencies. These records may be important later on.
  • Understand that the local or state agencies can be important advocates for you when it comes to issues related to federal agencies.
  • Federal agencies tend to be more specialized and segregated based on programs. You may need to reach out to separate program (permitting, compliance, enforcement, etc.) staff. Do not assume that they are already communicating with each other about your project.
Recap and Recommendations
  • Like any good relationship, plan to spend time getting to know each other – preferably before you have a challenging project on the table. This is an investment that will pay off later!
  • Develop an engagement plan with the agencies but be ready to flex based on changing needs, successes and challenges.
  • Remember that sometimes the satisfactory resolution of an issue might be less about the strength of your legal or technical arguments and more about your relationships, reasonableness and tone.
  • Partner with consultants that have a proven history of building successful relationships with local, state and federal agencies. They can help “fast track” the relationships and the project.

One size does not fit all when trying to understand and engage your regulatory agencies. However, one thing is for certain – a positive relationship with your regulatory agency is a valuable asset for your business. Making the effort to cultivate these ongoing relationships not only creates the accountability for compliance, but creates opportunities for more beneficial and timely outcomes for your future projects.

Register for our webinar on January 28th, where environmental professionals Jennifer Adams and Jeff Smith will cover how to build these relationships and more to optimize results for your projects.

Jeff Smith Director, Environmental Compliance & Permitting