Editorial: Got to be a better way?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the real estate tax maps in the county clerk’s office are not laser-like in their precision and accuracy (realtors complain about it all the time), and yet . . .

And yet these very same tax maps form the basis for much official and unofficial business — in actions, transactions and rulings involving both individuals and the county government.

Take, for example, the granting of special-use permits. Notices of a public hearing on the applicant’s requested permit are sent, at minimum, to all adjacent landowners — and often other nearby landowners likely to be affected by the possible change in land use. To identify these affected landowners, the tax maps are used. (Legal notices are also published in this newspaper, the Rappahannock News.)

But if affected landowners don’t happen to see the newspaper’s legal notice or receive individually mailed notices, then their voices are not heard at the public hearing at which their fate is determined.

Full disclosure: I speak from personal experience because I now have a noisy neighbor whose special-use permit was granted unbeknownst to me. Other neighbors and I (actually an adjacent landowner) never received notices because the tax map showed the applicant’s property at least a half mile from where it really is!

But I am not using the unique privilege of this newspaper’s public platform to seek any kind of reverse ruling or redress; I understand that all parties, acting in good faith, made decisions that now cannot reasonably be undone. Rather, I’m simply raising the question:

There’s got to be a better way?  

Some other jurisdictions, for example, put the onus on the applicant to prove — through certified letters — that adjacent landowners have all been notified of the required public hearing.

Or maybe it’s finally time to replace the county’s quaint, hand-drawn tax maps (reminiscent of pre-Gutenberg manuscripts) with some digital system from our computerized age. After all, Rappahannock County’s economy, not to mention whole way of life, is based on real estate and land use.

Walter Nicklin

1 Comment

  1. A Flint Hill resident chiming in here. My Father and his Father, were both land surveyors here in the Commentwealth. While not a surveyor myself, my profession is at least tangentially related to computer mapping. In a previous life, I implemented computer mapping systems, termed GIS (Geographic Information Systems). The most popular GIS system used by Counties and Cities is ArcGIS.

    It’s been awhile since I’ve seen the software, but just checked the vendor’s website (ESRI) and a “plugin” available which automates “Land Use Public Notification”.

    Demo here:


    Of course all this would require a license for ArcGIS. I was pleasantly surprised that the licensing costs have come down substantially over the years. At 1500 bucks for a single license it’s significantly cheaper than it used to be. But, and this is a big but, the real costs will be incurred digitizing the plats. Various tools in the application are available to aid in this, but it may be labor intensive. In the past, a huge cost was procuring accurate base data (aerial or satellite photos ), but, as anyone who’s used Google Maps or Mapquest or Zillow can attest, digital maps accurate to the square meter and better are readily available and most likely are included in the license cost. (As an aside, maps with this level of detail, were closely guarded National Secrets back in the 1980’s!)

    So the cool part is all this data, including you Land Use Notifications, is publishable to any number of social media platforms (internal websites, Twitter, Facebook, email, SMS texts, even this website) for internal or public consumption.

    Anyway, there’s a lot more on the ARCGis website.

    Here’s the Land Use Plugin demo:

    Also, if anyone is interested in reading more about implementing a GIS system at the municipal level…or just for fun. Might I suggest the following book:

    The GIS Book by George Korte

    Link: http://amzn.com/0766828204

    (Full disclosure, the author is my Father!)

    Call me old fashioned, but personally I like going down to Washington and pulling out the old plats, talking to the nice folks down there and seeing the old drawings…

    However, I’d be happy to answer anybody’s questions regarding GIS implementation. I charge $250/hour…only kidding!

    Regards and hope this was useful,

    Christopher Korte
    Flint Hill, VA

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