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UMPI project provides free, high-tech tools for local municipalities

Friday, 03 February 2012

The University of Maine at Presque Isle's GIS Laboratory has provided 15 central Aroostook County cities and towns with technologically advanced tools that are helping them to better manage their land parcels and create efficiencies in their tax assessing, planning and development, and land and forest management efforts.

The GIS Laboratory was able to complete this project at no cost to the municipalities thanks to a $12,000 grant it received from the Maine Office of Geographic Information Systems [MEGIS]. The project, "Central Aroostook Parcel GIS Mapping Project", was headed by Dr. Chunzeng Wang, UMPI Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Science. It is the area's first large-scale land parcel GIS mapping project.

According to Dr. Wang, the project focused on using GIS [geographic information systems] technology to convert each municipality's paper tax maps into a digital GIS dataset, and then integrating the dataset with the tax assessor's data in order to create a comprehensive cadastral and land parcel GIS database. Cadastral records are documents that show the value, extent and ownership of land as a basis of taxation. The finished GIS database for each municipality includes an accurate digital parcel map for an entire township with detailed data on each parcel, including its geometric shape and location (boundaries), owner information, assessed land values, and tax information.

"The completion of the project brings the central Aroostook cities and towns involved into the modern age of GIS land management," Dr. Wang said. "With this digital GIS parcel dataset, viewing and querying parcel data is only a finger click away."

Among the 15 cities and towns included in the project are nine municipalities that did not have any parcels digitized before the project began in May 2011, including: Presque Isle, Easton, Washburn, Limestone, Westfield, Perham, Wade, New Sweden, and Mars Hill. The project team also updated seven-year-old parcel GIS data for Mapleton, Castle Hill, Chapman, and Woodland. For the final two municipalities involved in the project, work had been done prior to the MEGIS grant. The GIS Laboratory completed GIS parcel mapping for Caribou in 2010 based on a community GIS partnership agreement, and Fort Fairfield already had its tax maps converted into GIS dataset, so the project team was able to make the slight adjustments necessary to the parcel boundaries so they matched the town boundaries with neighboring towns. Excluding Fort Fairfield's data, a total of 17,033 parcels were digitized and converted to GIS dataset by UMPI's GIS Laboratory.

Municipal officials are thrilled to have the new technology – digitized GIS parcel data helps planners make more informed decisions and provides current, reliable land information necessary for many public programs, such as: land use planning and zoning, infrastructure development and maintenance, environmental protection and resource management, forest management, and emergency services.

For those towns without GIS software, there was a potential barrier in utilizing the developed parcel GIS databases, but Dr. Wang was able to convert the information to kml data format maps. Google Earth can be used to easily view and query parcel data in kml data format. Wang has made trips to city and town offices to train officials on how to use the program and data. Ken Arndt, Director of Planning and Development for the City of Presque Isle, said it only took him two minutes to learn how to use it.

According to Arndt, now that officials have the information and technology in hand, they plan to utilize it in a number of different ways in the coming years.

"For instance, in the planning and business development arena, we've been focusing our attention on downtown revitalization issues and opportunities," Arndt said. "Knowing who owns what properties, the physical dimensions of those properties, and the assessed value of those properties within the downtown core is very useful information to the planning and design process. With all of the land parcels and supporting parcel data digitized, we now have a far greater opportunity to rapidly access that information and utilize it in making recommendations for change."

Local businesspeople – like Bruce Wilkins, a forester at Woodlot Management Services in Presque Isle – also are pleased with how the GIS databases are making their jobs easier. For Wilkins, tax maps are an essential tool in his business, which involves providing forest management services to private landowners.

"Now that I have digital forms of tax maps for all these townships, it saves a great deal of time and improves the quality of the services I can offer to landowners." Wilkins said. "For instance, when contacted by a new client, I can get the location information and, within minutes, pull up and print out a map of the property. Then it's easy to transfer the data into my GPS unit to carry into the woods with me. These are all great tools in planning for and managing the forestlands of these clients. They enable me to be more efficient and accurate when out in the woods collecting data. And the end product gives the woodland owner more detailed and comprehensive maps of the resources on their property."

The project has also provided UMPI students with real-world, hands-on experience. Two students, Thomas Pinette and Zicong Zhou, were hired to work full-time on the project in the Summer of 2011. Two full-time interns, Chelsey Ellis and Gary Parent, also worked on the project because of its connections to UMPI's EPSCoR program [Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research], which is funded by the National Science Foundation through the Maine EPSCoR Program.

"The GIS parcel project was an invaluable experience for me," Pinette said. "I was able to get real-world practice with GIS work rather than only have classroom labs to draw my experience from. Not only that, but I have the satisfaction of knowing the project is helping local towns as well."

According to Dr. Wang, collaboration between the University and local communities was crucial for the completion of the project, and the community GIS partnership the UMPI lab has established with local cities and towns in the past five years made the work run smoothly and efficiently. Wang said he visited town managers, development and planning directors, tax assessors, and town clerks in most of the cities and towns included in the project and received overwhelming support and help. He also closely worked with the tax assessors and tax map contractors with the towns of Limestone, Washburn, Mars Hill, Woodland, Wade, and Perham – in particular, Randy Tarr and Mike McPherson – whose assistance made it possible to get the job done on time.

The GIS Laboratory at the University was built with a $96,800 Maine Technology Asset Fund grant awarded to Dr. Wang in 2009. The development of the GIS program at the University aims at serving northern Maine communities and students as a GIS education and training center, developing community GIS partnership, and fostering community development.

Since the Fall of 2009, the laboratory has helped leverage more than $500,000 in external sources of funding to the University, in particular, its Environmental Studies and Sustainability Program for its research and development projects that range from developing cemetery GIS databases and partnering with local middle and high schools to teach GPS and GIS technologies to teachers and students, to mapping non-motorized trails and grasslands in Aroostook County.