County Land Information Portal Presents Detailed Picture of Parcels

St. Louis County, Minn.'s data retrieval system provides land records and geospatial information in one place.

by / November 7, 2014

Darren Jablonsky, St. Louis County, Minn.’s deputy director for planning and community development, recalls a time when negotiating with homeowners was tougher for the county’s public works right of way agents. They deal with property owners to acquire rights for land use, and they used to spend weeks collecting the appropriate documents to prepare for meetings. Wrangling data could be time-consuming.

“They used to have to know who the owner is, some of the recorded documents against the homeowner, some of the assessment details, tax details, any permits pulled, [and] any construction going on,” Jablonsky said.

They still have to know this information today, and it’s often spread out among multiple documents in various departments if the property in question has had a lot of activity associated with it. Agents had a lot to track down to get their jobs done in the past.

But the county has simplified processes like this with the Land Information Portal Web application. The internal, county-only portal is an online data retrieval system that provides land records and geospatial information. Both tabular and spatial data for each land parcel are linked and interchangeable, so users can switch between them within one single application.

“What we did was present those in a single format in which you could see the auditors’ information, tax information, land forfeit information, permitting information, and the history of that parcel,” said Clarence Manz, a retired IT supervisor who currently works with the county part time. “The document’s recorded and presented, and at that point the staff within the county see a much more detailed picture of a particular parcel at any point in time.”

People conduct document and data searches, export the results, view property details and maps, and generate reports. System queries extract data from numerous integrated county databases, and the Land Information Portal pulls these components from various departments. The user base comprises employees who serve different county functions, including the county recorders, county assessors, surveyors, auditors and people who work in community development, public works, utilities, health and human services, sheriff’s, and property management departments.

The portal went live in 2010, in Jablonsky’s estimation, but county staff consistently modified the application over the years, and they recently garnered recognition for the hard work. In September 2014, Esri honored 20 employees for their GIS project by issuing an award for Special Achievement in GIS. Jablonsky and Manz were part of the team, along with Jason Wefel, the current IT unit supervisor.

“One of the terms we like to use is ‘one-stop shop,’” Wefel said of the portal. “You can search on one parcel and it’ll give you all the department’s database information regarding that parcel, right in front of your nose.”

Jablonsky said the county has about 1,700 employees, and according to Wefel, roughly 700 of them use the portal. It’s tough for the portal’s managers to know how many people use the application on a daily basis, but they track the number of user IDs in the system. Many of the documents and data contain private information, which is why St. Louis County keeps the Land Information Portal internal on secure intranet.

Project planning began in 2004 when the county formed a land records work group to create an application that would bring all land record data together. They developed a plan of action and a proof of concept over the next few years, and they partnered with Pro-West and Associates, a local GIS technology consulting and data services company, to develop the Land Information Portal for its 2010 launch. Jablonsky was unable to provide a specific figure for the project’s cost since it spanned such a lengthy development period, much of which was completed internally by county IT staff. A Microsoft SQL server database powers the portal on the back end, and it was developed with the Visual Basic .NET programming language and a JavaScript toolkit. Developers use HTML and XML style sheets for the front-end interface and Esri technology for the mapping functionality.

Jablonsky and his colleagues had project support from other county officials, which helped the implementation go through. Approval from people like Mark Monacelli, the county public records and property valuation director, and Barbara Hayden, the planning and community development director, was instrumental.

“We had the stars aligned, things were in place, people were ready for this, and we involved all of the project participants on a regular basis in the planning and designing and development of this, in every step,” Manz said. 

Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.