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Fall 2005
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The City of Chesapeake, Virginia, Uses GIS in Its 2026 Comprehensive Plan

By Rebecca Benz, Senior GIS Analyst, Chesapeake Planning Department

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The image shows potential conservation areas for the City of Chesapeake, Virginia.

The city of Chesapeake is located in a region known as South Hampton Roads in the southeastern part of Virginia. The city encompasses more than one-third of the Great Dismal Swamp and Canal. The swamp is home to various flora and fauna habitats. The canal is part of the Atlantic Intracoastal waterway system and is known for its surveyor, George Washington. The canal was also part of the Underground Railroad for slaves fleeing from southern plantations in the 19th century. Chesapeake is rich in history; home to the Revolutionary War's Battle of Great Bridge, Civil War sites, and local and national historic districts; and nearby Jamestown, which is preparing for its 400th anniversary celebration. The city of Chesapeake also serves as a main thoroughfare for travel to the Outer Banks region of North Carolina. Because of Chesapeake's cultural and historical values, precise planning is necessary to manage growth and ensure that infrastructure develops simultaneously to serve the growing population of more than 210,000 inhabitants.

A comprehensive growth plan is mandated by the state of Virginia for every locality and is reviewed every five years. From 2001 through 2005, the city of Chesapeake's Planning Department used GIS technology in every aspect of the development of its Forward Chesapeake 2026 Comprehensive Plan. Forward Chesapeake 2026 is a citywide initiative to not only update the comprehensive plan, but also to apply modern technology and a means of communicating with the public to accomplish this goal. The city council, planning commission, and technical advisory committee working on this project established in Phase I that modern technology was essential to evaluating the current conditions of the city and creating a usable plan for future growth. GIS technology assisted the Planning Department's Comprehensive Planning Division in defining goals, targeting areas for growth, and assigning desired land uses with a geographic basis, ending in a successful plan for the city's future.

The city of Chesapeake has been using Esri products since its initial conversion from paper maps to digital GIS layers in 1998. Project leader Jaleh Shea, comprehensive planning administrator, felt fortunate that the city had the latest version of ArcGIS (ArcInfo) technology that could be applied in every phase of the comprehensive plan update. He says, "GIS is the most practical tool available to analyze a wide variety of data, construct and evaluate multiple alternatives, and produce products that effectively communicate with the public and policy makers." Throughout the project, common city GIS layers were used, and many new layers were created as a result of countless analyses.

Existing Conditions and Vision

GIS was used in each phase, from postcard mass mailings to inform more than 76,000 households of the process to mapping all existing conditions of the city. This was a challenge for a city with 353 square miles of land. Environmental constraints, current road network, 1990 land-use plan, existing property zoning, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood zones, planned infrastructure, new public facilities, etc., were all used for basemapping and presented to citizens at a series of Phase I public meetings. The outcome of Phase I was a new vision statement for the city and citizen input via workbooks created using the layout capabilities of ArcInfo.

Creation of Alternative Development Scenarios

During Phase I, citizens, experts, staff, consultants, and citizen group representatives assessed the existing conditions of the city and determined where the city would like to focus future development patterns. Phase II used the information gathered in Phase I to create a series of three development scenario maps. The three maps were then merged into one hybrid map. Each scenario was fully analyzed using GIS. A combination of dispersed, compact, and nodal development patterns was incorporated into the new 2050 hybrid development scenario map.

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Showing the final 2026 Land Use Plan.

The year 2050 was used in the Phase II development scenario due to the capital outlay budget time frame for roads and other infrastructure. During many meetings or retreats with the Technical Advisory Committee, Plan Advisory Team, Planning Commission, and City Council, "live" GIS was used to present map drafts and data queries. Commissioners and council members could request on-the-fly changes to a variety of map elements, including proposed village locations, addition of activity areas, or modifications to the urban or suburban overlay districts. Prioritization of critical areas using various methods of GIS symbology was helpful for staff and advisory groups to focus efforts and resources. The 2050 development scenario map was accepted by the Planning Commission and City Council, concluding Phase II of the plan update project.

Policy Document and Final Maps Preparation

To begin Phase III, the target planning year 2050 was pulled back to 2026 for specific land-use planning. However, the 2050 Master Transportation Plan, reflective of trends set forth in the 2050 development scenario map, remained in the 50-year horizon planning window. The projected 2050 population and southward expansion of citizens and businesses were scaled back to the projected 2026 calculations using the geographic boundaries of traffic analysis zones. Staff and consultants created a draft 2026 Land Use Plan, based on knowledge of growth trends in the area, current land use, zoning, overlay growth areas, character districts, environmental corridors, future utility expansions, and a series of activity centers and desired villages outlined in the development scenario map. After more than a year of land-use plan drafts, the final draft was presented during additional retreats with the Planning Commission and City Council. Again, ArcInfo was used to record any recommended changes, and those maps were incorporated into the staff report given to the commissioners and council members for their plan adoption public hearings. The final plan, adopted on March 9, 2005, includes 37 GIS maps and several analyses based on the more than 215 layers created for the comprehensive plan project.


Staff attended more than 50 meetings during the three-year project and used either mounted GIS maps or live GIS at every meeting. Other technologies that complemented the GIS effort and attributed to the success of the project included e-mail mass mailings to interested citizens, the Forward Chesapeake 2026 Web site, an FTP site for PDF map exchange, and television broadcasts for citizens unable to attend the community meetings.

For more information, contact Rebecca Benz, the city of Chesapeake Planning Department (e-mail:, tel.: 757-382-6176, Web:

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