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Close Encounter of a Bureaucratic Kind

Though many entrepreneurs shy away from governmental bureaucracy, John Ryan embraced it, forging a new market and new skills.

Ryan’s company, Land and Water Resources Inc., in Rosemont, Ill., builds wetland mitigation banks, which help developers comply more efficiently with the Clean Water Act.

The Act requires developers to compensate for wetlands they damage or destroy. Typically, developers comply by building ponds on properties — but getting the necessary wetland permits can delay projects considerably. Not only do the feds have to give their OKs but so do local agencies and community organizations. Waits of six months to a year are common.

While working for his family’s business, an earth-moving firm, Ryan witnessed developers’ frustration and saw an opportunity. By building large, regional wetland banks he could sell developers credits, saving them time and effort, while simultaneously creating a more ecologically sound product. Wetlands created by developers are typically small in size (one or two acres) and offer few benefits for wildlife, water quality or flood storage, explains Ryan.

That was 1990. Though public wetland banks had been built before, Ryan was pioneering the first commercial bank in the Midwest. "It was a supreme case of working through the bureaucratic nightmare," he says. Not only did he have to win the approval of multiple agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency, Ryan had to help write regulations, for none existed.

The approval took time — four years to be exact. A major selling point was that Ryan’s plan posed benefits not only to developers, but also to the government. Instead of visiting dozens of small sites angling for permits, regulators would save precious time by going through the motions once. Nonetheless, explaining the benefits and "getting them to believe — that was still tricky," he recalls.

Ryan’s first project, Otter Creek, a 52-acre wetland bank, is now touted as a national model. With the groundwork laid, his company got the green light faster for subsequent projects. Land and Water Resources has built 12 more banks to date, mostly in the Midwest and Colorado, with one bank winning its permit in three months. "We’ve gotten more efficient, and now we know what they’re looking for," says Ryan.

Interacting with government officials on a daily basis for the past decade, Ryan has amassed numerous tips for coping with — and cutting through — red tape:

  • Set realistic expectations. A project will probably take three or four times longer than expected, and even then "you probably won’t get as far as you thought."
  • Understand your opponent. When presenting an idea, don’t just talk, but listen intently to determine your audience’s reaction. "Find out what makes them tick and give it to them," says Ryan. And don’t be surprised if different people in the same agency have different hot buttons.
  • Roll up your sleeves. Since no rules existed for his market, Ryan helped develop local ones. His participation paid off, because these regulations were used as a national template. Ryan never considered the ramifications, but was grateful he didn’t approach legislation "on a half-hearted basis."
  • Remain open-minded and flexible, even if things aren’t going your way. You never know when a rule could change to your advantage — or when the rug could be pulled out from beneath you. Remember, you’re always at the mercy of new regulations, says Ryan.

Writer: Pamela Dittmer McKuen