Culpeper County GIS coordinator Pam Schiermeyer gave a presentation at last month’s Rappahannock County Planning Commission meeting on her county’s geographic information system (GIS), which she defined as “a system for storing and manipulating geographical information on a computer.”
Rappahannock County’s tax and property maps are not digitized and are maintained largely by hand.
Schiermeyer told the commissioners that Culpeper’s transition to GIS took several years. In 1990, the county contracted with a company to create countywide 911 and addressing maps. Using aerial photography, they mapped the physical features of the county, such as roads, buildings, driveways, streams, rivers, ponds, lakes and major overhead and underground utilities. The county’s 125 911 addressing maps were created using a software application that creates 2D and 3D images.
In 1998, the same company was hired to digitize the tax maps, creating 87 additional maps. By 2013 all the mapping was converted and is now completely maintained in GIS.
“I was resistant at first to the idea of GIS mapping,” Schiermeyer said, “but now I see the use.” Among the many advantages of GIS mapping, she mentioned that “parcels are now ‘smart’ and can be queried for data.” The county’s online GIS site can be used by most county departments, the general public (such as landowners), real estate agents and real estate appraisers. “This has reduced the number of calls to the Planning and Zoning office, since most data users seek is readily available online,” she said.
But the uses of GIS go far beyond mapping and identifying property parcels. Schiermeyer showed examples of how GIS data could be queried to create special-purpose maps showing, for instance, existing zoning, land use, school districts, watershed areas, soil types, agricultural and forestal districts, census population and detailed property assessment information. “These maps can help zoning administrators see what’s happening on properties,” she said, “and could complement the comprehensive plan.”
Commissioner Alvin Henry, who began the commission’s discussion two months ago that led to Schiermeyer’s presentation, said that “we’re starting off in the position in Rappahannock to look at this from the standpoint of, if we had something like this, development would come and that it would be a tool for developers to use, so that’s why we haven’t pursued a GIS system.”
“But it can also show what your zoning is and that your zoning does not support development,” Schiermeyer responded. “It’s a rural and agricultural area. They can look at an overall zoning map and see where the residential, industrial, commercial areas and know right away what areas they can pursue.”
“We’ve had a need for this in the county as a tool in our capital plan, our land plan,” Henry said. He then turned to Carolyn Sedgwick, Clarke and Rappahannock County conservation officer of the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), who was attending the meeting and had earlier expressed enthusiasm for GIS during the public comment period.
“I was happy to hear you say,” said Henry, “that you are coming at it from a different angle, from a conservation land planning resource position. That’s an important thing for us to put our hands on, and implement a GIS system. I wonder how many different ways do you [PEC] use it?”
“Oh gosh, you could have data on anything,” Sedgwick said. For example, she said, frequently property owners will call about conservation uses of their properties, but the old maps are imprecise and property boundaries are difficult to establish. “GIS is great for showing ownership. You can go into GIS and identify anything from endangered species information to ecologically sensitive areas to existing soil types for agricultural use. I use it to figure out where parcels are and if there are environmentally protected areas nearby. It’s a great tool for planning and informing. I find it tremendously helpful. It allows me to be a little more strategic in our efforts.”
Schiermeyer said, “The state is trying to create a statewide parcel layer with all the parcels for the entire state, so we provide the state with our parcel information, as well.”
Christopher Bird, the Board of Zoning Appeals representative on the commission, asked Schiermeyer how much the GIS would cost. “Well, our process has been so long over the years,” she said. “I’ve been there 23 years and when I came in, the county already had a contract to do the 911 map. I don’t remember how much it cost to digitize the maps in 1998.” But she added that there are numerous firms that could price out conversion to GIS. And much of the information in Culpeper’s GIS came from state and federal forestry agencies.
Another meeting attendee, Shannon Ennis, the Fauquier County 911 addressing coordinator, told the commission that GIS is also an essential public-safety tool because the digitized maps help police and fire departments quickly identify addresses in emergencies. She said that soon the state will mandate that GIS be used by all counties, and noted that GIS could also help create more accurate tax bills.
Marlina Lee of the county building office noted that the county offices utilizing the system could split the cost, as the system would be useful to all the county offices.
When asked later about the potential cost of implementing GIS in Rappahannock County, Deputy County Administrator Debbie Keyser said, “advances in technology have made implementation more affordable than ever before,” but she declined to speculate on a cost. “This topic will likely be discussed at the upcoming Board of Supervisors meeting.”
As far as managing such a system, Keyser explained, “There are two ways to approach this. We could hire an employee to manage it or we could make the system entirely web-based, as do Greene and Madison counties.” In that case, users could conduct their own searches and create their own maps.