August 30, 2010 By Russell Nichols
In Durham County, N.C., a few clicks will tell you if any colonial families were buried near your house.
Back in those days, families had to bury relatives on their property. Centuries later, the cemeteries remain, but to locate them residents had to do a lot of digging -- they would scour several sources for information, some of which they could only get from the planning office.
"You'll see small cemeteries all over the place," said T.E. Austin, a planning supervisor with the Durham City-County Planning Department. "They're in all kinds of subdivisions. You just don't know about it."
Now residents can simply log on to the county's new mapping website designed to help residents and developers find ownership and location data for nearly every cemetery, billboard and cell tower in the county. Launched by the research section of the Durham City-County Planning Department and the city's Geographic Information Systems (GIS) division of the city's Technology Solutions Department, the new platform makes it easier for citizens to search for these records by type or street address.
"People can pull it up at home," Austin said. "They don't have to come downtown or call us from 8 to 5."
This type of searchable database has been in demand for some time, Austin said, and the county sought to create a platform that would put all the information in one place. That way, residents and developers could access it 24/7 from anywhere with Internet access. Developers can easily find out who owns a billboard, for example, and potential homebuyers can look for property near cell towers if they want to have strong service.
This new development tracking map in Durham County represents the latest example of local governments improving the delivery of property-related information. Earlier this month, Cape Coral, Fla.'s Economic Development Office announced a subscription to CoStar, a national online company that tracks commercial properties for realtors and other subscribers, saving the city about $27,000 a year. In July, the Los Angeles County Public Works Department launched a new Twitter account (@LACoSurveyor) to display the latest tract and parcel maps. Followers can monitor economic trends by watching for changes in the number of recorded subdivision maps throughout Los Angeles County. The recession flipped the market on its head, but local officials have been keeping an eye on building trends for signs of an upswing.
In Durham, county officials say the new database is just the first step. They plan to incorporate additional search criteria and selections to the new mapping service, including zoning map changes, site plans and more in the near future. But no matter how much the database expands, the county aims to keep the site design simple and easy to navigate.
"I was trying to make it as straightforward as possible," said Tyler Waring, a GIS analyst with the city's Technology Solutions Department. "If I could get my grandma to find her house and see if there was a billboard next to it, that's what I was shooting for."
And the information is a two-way street: In one recent case, Austin said, a resident helped county officials discover a cemetery they didn't even know existed.
"A citizen called and said, 'That's great but you missed this one,'" Austin said. "People feed information to us, which we can update to make the site better. The more information we get, the more self-service they'll be able to do at their leisure."
To view the new mapping site, visit the Durham City-County Planning Department website and select "Development Tracking Map" or click here.