Banner image by Craig Blacklock via email.
Affording an escape from the hustle and bustle of metropolitan areas, Bayfield County is a serene retreat in northern Wisconsin with the beautiful Apostle Islands extending into Lake Superior. Between the increase in nonresident homes and cabins and a swell in development projects during COVID-19, Bayfield's paper permitting application process was often a limiting factor in supporting the county's livelihood and growth. Robert Schierman, director of Planning and Zoning at Bayfield County, takes pride in his role in helping residents and nonresidents build their homes and projects. He helps make "dreams come true," especially in a time when many dreams have been abandoned.
Bayfield County processes approximately 400 land-use applications in an average year and grows to 800–1,000 during a busy year. This high volume of permits creates a large filing and paper challenge. The county was therefore seeking an electronic permitting process that went beyond a basic electronic form. The county wanted something interactive that also leveraged its existing land records database. Fortunately, it realized this need for an improved permitting solution well before the pandemic hit in 2020 and was already prepared with a streamlined process so the county could continue making people's construction dreams a reality.
Bayfield County's Zoning and Permitting department reached out to North Point Geographic Solutions (NPGS) with a simple idea for an online permitting application form. The goal was to allow public users, property owners, and contractors to draw a structure on a map. Staff also needed a map that can pull in their parcel data through ArcGIS Online, a complete web-based mapping and analysis solution that enables cross-departmental collaboration.
A multiyear collaborative process began that resulted in a life cycle solution neither party initially envisioned. After implementation, they realized the value of also having the application automatically calculate setback measurements. This added capability created a more efficient permit application process, and, in return, helped the planning department staff gather more accurate information from the applicant.
When the applicant submits the permit application, the county uses ArcGIS Online to access the parcel data for the land and calculate the setback location based on the measurements of the proposed build.
When Bayfield County started testing the initial phase for the public user, it became clear that there was room for a more seamless workflow among all stakeholders. The decision was made to add the administrative and inspector user roles to the application. Bayfield County and NPGS worked together to add other functionalities to the application such as a timeline and capabilities to assign tasks to inspectors, add file attachments, track payments, and email applicants from within the application. The timeline feature, for example, allows all parties to know where the permit is in the application process. A public user can simply log in and check the status without contacting the county.
All three user types—public users, administrators, and inspectors—can log in to the portal and check the status of the permit in real time.
This second phase also streamlined the inspector's role. Rather than sorting through paper applications and trying to map out inspections for the day, they can simply log in to their dashboard. The integrated map allows them to see their open inspections and create an efficient driving route for the day's assignments.
Since the setbacks measurements are precalculated, the inspectors simply select the parcel and confirm the accuracy or update the measurements, if needed. This is accomplished using ArcGIS Field Maps, an all-in-one app that simplifies field deployments and mobile data collection with location-tracking capabilities. The updated data is saved and uploaded in real time onto the same application online.
If an inspection is added while inspectors are already in the field, it doesn't require an additional trip back to the office to retrieve the paper permit application. They can simply work the new inspection into their day.
Inspectors have the ability to approve each of the setback measurements or record adjustments by using ArcGIS Field Maps.
This new permitting process has also simplified the payment steps and eliminated the need for in-person payments during the COVID-19 pandemic, making the experience more convenient especially for nonresidents. The application links directly to the payment platform of choice and automatically calculates fees based on the project information provided, allowing issues to be resolved quickly and with transparency into the permitting workflow.
"You tell the application the size of your project; it scales it out and calculates the setbacks for you. The user can then just drag and drop the icon onto the aerial photograph," said Schierman.
All of the georeference information is in there as far as parcel lines, wetlands, and roads. This results in a more accurate and consistent product. The days of drawing plot plans on bar napkins and receipts are over.
Director of Planning and Zoning at Bayfield County
NPGS's permitting solution leverages ArcGIS Online and ArcGIS Field Maps into an integrated software platform that's intuitive and easy to use. The collaboration of Bayfield County and NPGS developers has resulted in a product that is truly a team effort where the needs and concerns of all three application user types are considered.
"We have received several comments from first-time and senior users that, 'If I can figure this out, anyone can.'" said Schierman.
The ongoing vision for this project is that the application will soon integrate many other permit types. The team is working to pilot a functionality that allows administrators to have more control over what content and permit types appear to users. North Point Geographic Solutions is excited about moving forward with the latest capabilities in ArcGIS to improve its permitting solutions to serve other counties and communities throughout the country as well as foster its great working relationship with Bayfield County, Wisconsin.