Geographic information systems have been a source of controversy since they exploded into the world of land surveying more than a decade ago. 

Those in the survey community who have embraced GIS have pursued what at times seems to be an impossible goal: the survey-accurate GIS. As if this concept were not ambitious enough, there are those who want even more. They want a national land parcel database.

Why Do We Need A National Parcel Database?

The stated purpose of the Land Ordinance of 1785 was to give Congress the power to raise revenue by direct taxation. The profound impact this action had on the development of the United States cannot be overstated. The role of the land surveyor in the implementation of that (land) system has been significant. But more than 200 years after initially implementing the program, important challenges remain.

Several federal government agencies have issued reports indicating the need for a national parcel database. Disaster management is often chief on the list of reasons given to create this database. Indeed, it is a compelling reason to give this proposal some visibility and consideration.

I have experienced firsthand how base maps with accurate property information can direct emergency response activities and expedite post-disaster recovery programs. During the wildfires that occurred in San Diego County in 2003 and 2007, the parcel database in the GIS clearly demonstrated its value. We have all seen the devastating effects that disasters the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina and the World Trade Center attacks have wreaked, and the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is yet another example. These events leave little doubt that an accurate record of what exists before damages occur is of incalculable value in aiding cleanup efforts and reconstructing communities in the aftermath of horrific events.

In a report produced by the Federal Geospatial Data Committee (FGDC) Cadastral Subcommittee, the home mortgage crisis has been identified as another particular area of concern. That committee recommends adding parcel data to home mortgage information to analyze trends. The committee believes that this type of information could help identify troubled areas and apply appropriate intervention measures before localized situations spill over and become critical. These reports also cite other potential uses for a complete, coordinated national cadastre. The FGDC has explored such an application for use in the areas of energy and climate change.

The concept of a national parcel database is not particularly new. The need for a multipurpose cadastre was the subject of a report issued by the Panel on a Multipurpose Cadastre of the Committee on Geodesy of the National Research Council’s (NRC) Assembly of Mathematical and Physical Sciences in 1979. In a Surveying GIS article published in 2002, I posed the question, “Whatever happened to the multipurpose cadastre?” The question persists. And it raises the somewhat larger issue of why haven’t we as surveying professionals done more to help create the multipurpose cadastre?

The NRC concluded that a coordinated approach to federal parcel data did not exist. The consensus of all the federal reports seems to be that national partnerships for organizing and collating land parcel data would benefit local programs by providing federal assistance.

Technical Challenges

Those who have seriously contemplated the construction of a national parcel database understand the magnitude of the task and the nearly interminable variables. Not the least of these variables is the lack of a reliable accuracy standard. The federal government has taken a lead role in this exercise through the FGDC’s development of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) model.

Meanwhile, the sheer amount of geospatial data being produced continues to increase. Indeed, the word “urgent” is used liberally in the recommendations proffered in these various reports. The land parcel is the key component of the NSDI. “Cadastral data” is one of seven fundamental data themes in the NSDI. To facilitate the development of an NSDI model, the National Geospatial Advisory Committee (NGAC) was created in 2008 to provide recommendations to the FGDC.

After some review, the NGAC reported to the FGDC that the federal government was lacking some critical information. They did not have enough data at the parcel level to make good decisions in an emergency situation. In the NGAC model, land parcel databases would contain descriptions of the rights, interests and value of the property. That information is housed in various tax assessor bases but is often not readily available to other agencies.

Warehousing the data is both a challenge and a concern. Storage capacity is no longer an issue, but jurisdictional hurdles will continue to be substantially more complicated.

Political Challenges

According to the NGAC report, the database should be “a distributed system of land parcel data housed with the appropriate data stewards but accessible through a web-based interface.” This “modest proposal” has huge and far-ranging implications.

There is a daunting question that hovers over any proposed consolidation process like a giant shadow: Who benefits? The easy answer is everyone who has a use or need for the information. The more difficult question involves the return on investment for stakeholders. Who is going to compensate the owners of these data where they already exist?

There is a huge disparity in the way local land systems are funded, constructed and managed. All 50 states have different codified versions of the laws governing the title and ownership of real property. These are further complicated by the fact that property issues are handled at the local municipal level rather than in a uniform statewide model. So there needs to be some motivation for local governments to participate in a national parcel program.

County Surveyors and Tax Assessors

A parcel can be an entity regardless of whether it has been surveyed. Parcels are more often than not fully described as “tax parcels.” The tax assessor has had a historic interest in the identification and ownership record of parcels. But there is a wide variety of methodologies used to construct and maintain these tax parcel databases. There are also peripheral issues involving the sensitivity of some data.

So then, who are the stakeholders? The National Research Council concluded the following in one of its reports:

... the financial and technical issues are minor compared to the organizational and political ones. With thousands of counties or other governmental entities as potential producers of parcel data, the organizational issues are complex. It is not a simple task to assemble parcel data that span several counties or states. Overcoming organizational boundaries even among federal agencies has been difficult, as evidenced by the fact that there is no single inventory of federal lands.

If anything, this fairly astute observation is something of an understatement.

The goal of this Infrastructure is to reduce duplication of effort among agencies, improve quality and reduce costs related to geographic information, to make geographic data more accessible to the public, to increase the benefits of using available data, and to establish key partnerships with states, counties, cities, tribal nations, academia and the private sector to increase data availability.

Legislation recently enacted by the 111th Congress--specifically, HR 1520 The Federal Land asset Inventory Reform Act of 2009--addresses some of the issues pursuant to the process of the creation of a national parcel database. Is this good news? Similar bills have been submitted by earlier Congresses, but they were never enacted. So, it would appear that this latest move is at least a step in the right direction.

As we begin to deal with increasingly complex issues in the fields of land use and development, national standards will acquire greater relevance. If we as land surveyors are to be the leaders of the profession, we need to address these questions in a responsible and professional manner. We are stakeholders as well, and we need to lend our voices to the debate.