Web Application Eliminates Courthouse Visits

Information in county tax and land record offices remains as vital to the land surveying profession today as it was in the days of the compass and chain. But like the earliest tools that were once cutting-edge and can now be found at antique shows, visits to the county office may soon become remnants of the past. Surveying professionals can now count the Internet among the list of sophisticated tools that they have at their disposal, and many are reaping immediate results from a breakthrough use of Web technology.
Even a year ago, combining the Internet with GIS technology often meant little more than posting paper maps online. Today however, new software applications like WebGIS.net provide much more powerful GIS analysis capabilities, and finding information such as parcel numbers and parcel locations can be as simple as searching the Web. As a result of this, research that used to take hours or days to complete can now be done in a matter of minutes.

Easily Accessible Information
WebGIS.net is an Internet-based GIS application that links tax and land records into a searchable database and serves this information over the Internet. The bottom line for professionals who regularly need to access maps, parcel locations, and a wealth of other land-related information is time saved—no more hours spent searching through records from office to office, no more trips to neighboring counties. With WebGIS.net, locating ownership and contact information for all properties adjacent to a given parcel, for example, is as simple as clicking the "Adjoiners" button.
WebGIS.net was developed by Anderson & Associates, Inc., a professional design services firm headquartered in Blacksburg, Virginia. The application uses ESRI's Map Objects and Microsoft's Visual Basic to link real estate and tax map databases for local governments, and ESRI's MapObjects Internet Map Server (IMS) to serve this information over the Web. The real functionality comes into play in terms of how the program processes user requests. Through the simple lens of a "point-and-click" browser interface, users can execute complex database queries just by clicking on a map image, or choosing menu options such as "Locate Parcel by Owner's Name." This combination of clickable map images, pull-down menus, and Web buttons allows users to carry out sophisticated searches without having to learn a programming language or master a complicated software package.
The WebGIS.net interface centers around a map view of a given locality that displays all parcel locations, town and county limits, and more. Users can zoom in to find nearby roads, bus stops, or fire hydrants, or zoom out for an aerial view. Each locality's site also includes a range of specialized map layers, from roads, schools, government buildings, and voting districts, to natural features such as streams, topography, and flood zones. Users can turn these layers on or off to streamline their searches for only the information that they need.
The program includes several search functions of particular interest to surveyors. First, there are a variety of ways to find parcels, including the address, owner's name, or tax identification number. This range of search parameters increases flexibility because if one piece of information is missing, there is usually some other method to retrieve the needed data. Once a parcel has been located, the program automatically returns all known information about that piece of land, including the tax record number, owner's name and address, deed book and page number, and land and building values. This information alone can sometimes save hours of searching.
Another option available is the "Adjoiners" button. Clicking this with a given parcel selected, returns a map of all adjacent parcels, along with a table listing their parcel numbers, owners' names and addresses, deed book and page numbers, and acreages. Choosing the menu option, "List by Buffer" also returns this data table; after prompting the user to enter a buffer distance, the program returns information about all parcels within that specified zone.

Individual Needs Met
Surveyors, real estate agents, and appraisers have been the most enthusiastic users of WebGIS.net. Anderson & Associates currently hosts WebGIS.net for local governments throughout Virginia and North Carolina, including Ashe, Burke, Clevelend, and Stanly Counties in North Carolina, and the City of Roanoke, Town of Blacksburg, and Montgomery County, Virginia. Each implementation is specifically tailored to meet that locality's needs. For example, some sites include property cards that list detailed building attributes, while others include an "Attributes at a Point" option that provides citizens with valuable information such as voting locations and school districts.
For professionals who have already grown accustomed to working faster and more efficiently with WebGIS.net, there is no turning back. According to Dent Turner, a surveyor who regularly uses the Stanly County system to search for adjacent properties, locate parcel numbers, and look up deed references, the system has become indispensable. "Now that it's here, we can't do without it," he said.
Today he would no more go back to the days of pre-Internet research than he would use steel tape to measure the distance across a valley. "This is the wave—here we are, right in the future," he added. "I'm glad Stanly County's gotten onboard instead of being 20 years in the past."
In Burke County, WebGIS.net has been so helpful to surveyors and other "regulars" that their visits to county offices have visibly decreased by 50 percent. "The regular user—the surveyor or the realtor—we don't see as many of them," said GIS Specialist Scott Black. "They know the system, and they know what they're looking for." Black estimates that Burke's system serves about 600 visitors per week.
Anderson & Associates provides WebGIS.net as a GIS Application Service Provider (ASP) for the counties and municipalities who use it to serve their land-related information over the Internet. Providing the software application over the Internet allows local governments to offer this service without having to invest heavily in GIS software, training, and updates. Instead, they pay for use of the program, either on a per-use basis or for access over a period of time. The ASP concept of sharing the cost of software and hardware among a number of users is likely to greatly speed the expansion of GIS.
The future of WebGIS.net holds even more potential. Anderson & Associates is in the process of upgrading to ESRI's ArcIMS, which will replace both Map Objects and Map Objects IMS. This upgrade will substantially increase the program's functionality, allowing users to execute more powerful queries on the database. For example, WebGIS.net currently gives information about buffers only around a given parcel of land, but future versions will allow users to select any feature in the database, such as a road, railroad, or stream, and find all structures and parcels within a given distance. If a locality has flood zones, users will be able to choose queries such as "show me all parcels or structures within 100 yards of a flood zone."
Perhaps most enticing to the surveying profession is the potential for land records to become completely automated with this type of technology. "This same technology could be used to do deed research right from your desktop," stated Anderson & Associates Survey Manager John Christman, LS "Right now, you still have to go to the courthouse for copies of deeds and other pieces of information. But it is conceivable that one day you may not." Several communities are scanning deeds now in preparation for adding them to their sites.

Kimberly Richards-Thomas has worked for Anderson & Associates as Public Relations Coordinator, covering WebGIS.net as well as civil engineering, surveying, and creative services.

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