University of Wisconsin–Madison

Wisconsin Geospatial News

Land records projects are bubbling

Modernization of land records continues to move forward in Wisconsin. Lately we have had the opportunity to visit a number of local offices around the state and can confidently report that progress is more evident than ever.

What follows are selected highlights from our recent travels. Rather than listing specifics, here we will focus on several common threads we noticed.

Parcel Mapping

First, activity in the digital mapping of land ownership parcels is vigorous. In several northern counties serious work has begun recently toward integrated mapping that will result in a county-wide product. While this kind of modernization was initiated in the more populous counties some years ago, lack of resources has held back progress over much of the north.

This recent movement toward more robust parcel mapping is the result of multiple factors. The Wisconsin Land Information Board’s Strategic Initiative grant program has been a big boost for some counties that collect only modest amounts of fees from the filing of land records documents and as a result have few resources with which to build this critical information layer in computerized form. In another case, the county has been accumulating its collected fees for a number of years and is now poised to embark on a large parcel mapping contract with a private firm.

Document Imaging

Systems to scan and index documents at the Registers of Deeds offices in the county courthouses have become very common. However, some of the oversized maps such as old city plats don’t fit the more modestly proportioned scanners. In some cases, counties have transported their larger documents off site for scanning.

Customized software delivery

A number of businesses have sprung up around the state and elsewhere that specialize in consulting and delivery of customized GIS applications. The installed systems have been yielding benefits in some local governments–particularly those with more resources–for over ten years. By contrast, progress in organizations with far fewer resources has been slow, yet even in some of these places the tide is turning. Especially where a county can pool resources from multiple departments, integrated GIS solutions delivered by consultants are becoming more common.

GPS-Snowmobile interference

One county land information office reported problems with signal interference when trying to map trails using a GPS receiver mounted on a snowmobile. While signal interruption from tree branches has been a well-known problem for years, in this case it seemed that the interference was emanating from the snowmobile itself, perhaps part of the engine controls. The problem occurred only with newer model sleds.

Comprehensive planning popularity?

In a number of counties we heard about the growing uneasiness with the state’s comprehensive planning program. This seems to be particularly prevalent within the rural towns in counties in the central part of the state. The anti-comprehensive planning activities are influencing some counties to limit their county wide planning goals, and to focus more on general planning rather than on specific localized land-use planning strategies.

Comprehensive planning also carries the label of "smart growth", and it is this label that carries the connotation with many as a program that limits desirable growth and curtails individual property rights. Since good quality land-use planning requires current, accurate and reliable geospatial data, the use of information created and maintained through the state’s Land Information Program is a critical component to the success of the comprehensive planning program.

GIS User groups fill a niche

Within regions and metropolitan areas, GIS users in more than half of the state are gathering several times a year to share experiences, hear about new products and techniques, and plan for regional group data development projects.

Most such groups are coordinated by staff from a regional planning commission, sometimes as part of a small leadership team. The group in the Milwaukee area has been led by a private-sector consultant. We are in the process of building an index to these groups for our web site.

At the county level a number of GIS user groups or coordinating groups have formed. These are usually organized by the county Land Information Office. In one southeastern county the LIO coordinates regular meetings inviting GIS employees from the county’s many municipalities. The purpose of the meetings is to regularly inform one another of progress on current projects, and the intended scope of planned projects. The goal of sharing what is being planned is to make any adjustments to the scope of projects to meet the needs of other potential users, just not the needs of the project sponsor. It’s a simple yet effective process that seems to be working well, and is leading to improved development of integrated systems and shareable data products.