Big Job, Small Budget

A small but growing Colorado town assembles a powerful GIS tool that fits the bill.

by / April 30, 1999
When companies desert large, congested metropolitan areas for open space and the eager workforce of depressed rural areas, their impact is fairly predictable -- population growth, accelerated development, rising property values, expanded infrastructure and increased demand for government services. As the economy of the area grows, nearby townships are confronted with planning requirements for new subdivisions, land-use applications, property-owner notifications and the need for updated infrastructure data. For municipalities with limited resources, the demands can be overwhelming.

Wellington, Colo., a one-square-mile Ft. Collins suburb of 2,100 residents, recently faced a similar situation. In the mid-1990s, high-tech firms and other industries moving to Ft. Collins generated employment opportunities and revitalized a stagnant economy. As more people moved into the area and new subdivisions sprang up, the agricultural township of Wellington was quickly transformed into a bedroom community with a growing appetite for municipal services. As a result, the town's limited resources and full-time staff of eight were soon stretched to their limits.

GIS Integration

Town Administrator Kevin Burke explained that, as a result of the economic downturn in the mid-1980s Wellington had much open land and numerous lots that had not been developed. "Land already platted for subdivision had sat vacant for years. By 1996, though, we had people wanting to make improvements to those lots, get variances, land-use changes and construction permits."

Burke pointed out that under state law, Wellington is required to notify all property owners of proposed land-use changes within 150 feet of their property line. Since the town did not have GIS capability, the notification process was very labor-intensive.

The cadastral data and plat maps needed to process property-owner notifications are in databases maintained by the county assessor and the GIS division, located in Ft. Collins. From the maps, Wellington's staff determined the number of lots affected, recorded the legal description of each, then searched the tax records for the names and addresses of the legal owners. For the mailing addresses of property owners with only P.O. boxes, they had to go to the town's water records, and for data and maps of the town's sewer and water infrastructure, to Wellington's public works office.

The maps were on Mylar, and much of the information about the system was incomplete. According to Burke, the whole process -- collecting all the data, maps and addresses, transferring everything to paper, generating a merge file, then creating a mailing and sending it out -- took two or three days.

To handle all of this efficiently, Wellington needed a GIS. The town's annual budget of $675,000 largely decided the course of action. Meeting with the township's six trustees, Burke presented a program to speed up processing and provide better access to cadastral data, town maps and infrastructure without capital investment in an expensive system and a $60,000-a-year technician.

Burke proposed farming out data processing to a GIS consulting firm that would collect the necessary maps, tables and data, process them into a single format, and download them to an affordable desktop GIS. With the smaller, easier-to-use system, the town could carry out the specific steps of putting together property-owner notifications, generating maps and tracking infrastructure. The consultant would then update all data biannually.

Enter the Consultants

Following development of project specifications, trustee approval and an RFP, Wellington selected Denver geotechnology consultants Ternary Spatial Research (TSR) for the project. The Larimer County assessor provided TSR with parcel data on a CD-ROM, in drawing exchange format (DFX). The GIS Division provided plat maps, and Wellington's public works office supplied maps of the town's water and sewer lines.

Using ArcInfo GIS, TSR translated the assessor's parcel information into a data layer of polygons with real-world coordinates, digitized the Mylar maps and drawings of the sewer and water system as another layer, then integrated the plat maps. The data was then compiled into a single format and downloaded to the ArcView GIS that TSR recommended for Wellington. With ArcView, the town can click on any polygon (parcel) and access all the cadastral data for that parcel -- 30 to 40 items in all, including dimensions, ownership, address, valuations and assessed value. Another layer displays the water and sewer lines associated with the parcel.

According to Burke, GIS has made notifying property owners of proposed land-use changes a simple point-and-click operation.

"We identify the property proposed for land-use change, map out a 150-foot buffer around it, have ArcView call up all the property owners within that area, then export the list as a DBF file to Microsoft Excel," he explained. "From there, we can clean up the list, if needed, or just do a mail merge, create envelopes, and send it out. Since we're required to send a vicinity map along with the notice, we print the same map used to create the buffer area. We can also produce a map of the property proposed for land-use change. What used to take two to three days can now be done in 15 minutes. This is the primary reason we got the GIS."

Another reason, Burke said, was the need for detailed data on infrastructure. "A lot of the information regarding sewer and water lines was in our public works supervisor's head -- 'Yeah, we got a map showing where the water lines are; some valves work, some don't, some hydrants have quirks.'

"There were lines on the map that really aren't there, particularly in our sewer lines. The GIS enables us to create more accurate maps and a layered database of pipeline characteristics -- line function and size, depth, distance from the curb, and the type of pipe," he continued. "If we are looking for older, four-inch clay-tile sewer lines, we can run a query, locate the pipes and include them in our annual replacement schedule. Now, when we have a land-use proposal, we can call up a map and see the water and sewer lines with manholes, valves and fire hydrants. That allows the town's planning commission and board of trustees and individual property owners to see if there are any conflicts with the codes or land-use requirements, or if there is no access to utilities."

Across the Board

Wellington's GIS investment, Burke said, has already paid for itself in saved engineering costs.

"We have been able to save $3,000 to $4,000 by not having to contract with engineers to develop maps of our water and sewer system. We produce the maps, and the engineers do the distribution analysis from them. Also, in writing up the annual RFP for line replacement, we can measure the distance between manholes, calculate how much line we're replacing and the per-foot cost involved. That, in turn, helps us with budgeting. The GIS plays an integral role in our capital improvement program."

Other advantages, Burke said, include a more productive workforce, and a few fringe benefits.

"Wellington's Economic Development Association is using the system to identify vacant storefronts and available properties as part of their business-attraction efforts," he said. "Elected officials are getting more detailed information in their meeting packets; this leads to better decision-making. Furthermore, information is not lost if there is staff turnover or the public-works director gets hit by a bus."

Buy What You Need

"Most municipalities know the benefits of GIS, but feel the programs are outside their budget," Burke said. "Hiring a consultant to process GIS information on their $60,000 to $100,000 software and hardware setup avoids expensive overhead. ArcView is a relatively inexpensive desktop version of the $20,000 ArcInfo, and we brought it online for $3,377, consulting services included. It has adequate editing functions to update information and provide certain specific services we need."

Burke pointed out that data updates will be an ongoing cost. "The county assessor provides updates on property ownership and legal descriptions, and TSR provides biannual updates on certain data and integrates all of these into ArcView. Total annual costs for data and GIS services are about $1,500."

And training? "Absolutely minimal," Burke said. "We just pulled out the book and went through some of the tutorials on our own. TSR's Quint Redmond gave us some pointers, and we were up and running in a couple of days. It took about 16 to 20 hours to get comfortable with ArcView."

Redmond said the town knew what it wanted to do and the specific functionality needed.

"That's what made it affordable. Most people take on too much with GIS; they want orthophotograpy, complex analyses -- if that had been the case for Wellington, the cost would have been $50,000 instead of $3,000," he said. "Burke's understanding of how GIS works is what made this possible."

Bill McGarigle is a writer specializing in communications and information technology. He is based in Santa Cruz, Calif. Email