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Summer 2005
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In 2004, an Unexpected Use for County Inventory Helps FEMA

Indian River County, Florida, Manages Vacant Land with GIS

By Phillip J. Matson, Staff Director, and Ryan Suarez, Senior Planner, Indian River County Metropolitan Planning Organization, and Prasad V. Chittaluru, Program Manager, PBS&J

The Indian River Vacant Land Inventory application integrates data collected from the county's planning department, property appraiser's office, and local cities to generate reports and maps addressing a wide range of planning issues. Planners have enjoyed the ease of use and broad reporting capability of a GIS-based tool used to assess and monitor regional development.

  click to enlarge
The Indian River County Vacant Land Inventory application can create detailed maps that county planners use to evaluate future developments.

Following Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004, an unexpected use of the application emerged. The tool helped the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) quickly find land to temporarily house residents left either homeless or briefly displaced by the hurricanes.

Growing Communities

The Florida cities and communities of Fellsmere, Indian River Shores, Orchid, Sebastian, and Vero Beach comprise Indian River County. More than 126,000 people live in the 500-square-mile county that, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, boasts a nearly 80 percent homeownership rate. Indian River County, like many of Florida's coastal communities, is experiencing an influx of both retirees and families seeking the region's quality of life.

The Indian River County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) sought an efficient way to assess potential development capacity of the county's vacant land based on zoning and land-use regulations. Reviewing the vast amount of parcel, permit, and zoning data available would take experienced planners many hours. A solution integrating database and GIS applications, however, would speed analyses and allow for tailored reporting. To design and implement a solution that provides them with the capability to perform the vacant land inventory and development potential analysis efficiently, MPO issued an RFP and selected the engineering consulting firm PBS&J to develop this solution.

Vacant Land Inventory Application

Esri Business Partner PBS&J developed an application integrating data already collected by local government agencies: GIS parcel data, county tax roll information, revenue codes, assessment values, subdivision and zoning information, future land-use data, municipality borders, traffic analysis zones, information about existing or planned residential development projects, permit status, and street centerline data. The resulting tool, the Indian River County Vacant Land Inventory application, addresses the county's planning needs by identifying vacant land at the parcel level and computing the number of existing and potential single-family and multifamily residential housing units.

Available in minutes, the reports provide land information by acreage and units, as well as development status reports and other specialized formats. To narrow findings, a filter option allows results to be generated for specific areas, such as traffic analysis zones, subdivisions, and municipalities. In addition to automated reports, the application also creates GIS data, which can be easily displayed and manipulated using ArcInfo.

The Vacant Land Inventory application is delivered on a single DVD. The tool was built using Microsoft Access 2000 to develop the user interface, program logic, and report format. County staff used lookup tables that are stored and maintained in a Microsoft Access 2000 database along with intermediate and final results.

GIS geoprocessing tasks are performed using Esri ArcInfo Workstation ARC Macro Language (AML), taking advantage of its proven performance and reliability in batch processing large GIS datasets. Analysis results can be accessed through click to enlargeArcInfo software's ArcMap application or the application interface. Map templates showing the results of the data analysis were developed using ArcMap, and custom ArcObjects code was written to open all map templates present in the application directory. The maps can also be exported in PDF format, and end users can view the maps through the application interface directly.

Ease of Use

County staff can use the application without having a high level of GIS or database training or knowledge. As a result, a resource-intensive task has been automated into an operation completed in minutes.

"Anyone can use the software to easily manipulate volumes of parcel data," says Stan Boling, County Planning director. "The data can then be utilized to generate useful, understandable tables and maps. There is no need for the end user to be savvy in parcel data."

Two security levels are offered: administrator and read-only. Administrators can access the entire application to update datasets, regenerate results, and modify lookup tables. Other users may access only the generated reports and maps using a password obtained from a department administrator.

The Vacant Land Inventory application is processed on one GIS workstation and is available for use on four workstations. The geospatial data created by the application has also been distributed to other GIS users in the county.

Everyday and Emergency Applications

The application has generated data on the region's future development potential and subsequently has been used to generate more accurate long-range travel demand models. Specifically, the application was used to create socioeconomic data at the traffic analysis zone level for use in the Florida Standard Urban Transportation Model Structure. Data such as the projected number of residential dwelling units and future employment was derived using the application and incorporated into the model's data files.

County planners use the tool to monitor the pace of residential development and perform what-if analyses to assess rezoning requests or to perform comprehensive land-use plan updates. Through the use of the lookup tables, the application allows planners to easily modify densities associated with future land-use and zoning districts. Planners can then analyze the ramifications of residential rezonings.

In September 2004, Florida's Atlantic Coast was hit by Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne. Damage to Indian River County totaled nearly $3 billion. To assist FEMA, the county MPO used the application to find temporary housing locations for residents displaced by the hurricanes. To date, 1,100 travel trailers for displaced residents have been located in the county.

"The two primary factors involved in finding sites for temporary housing units are contiguous areas of vacant land and residentially zoned parcels," says Ryan Morrell, a county senior planner. "The Vacant Land Inventory application quickly allowed MPO to provide FEMA with multiple candidate parcels meeting these two criteria."

New Uses for Vacant Land Inventory

Most recently, the Vacant Land Inventory application has been used to find a potential new high school site. The application, coupled with geospatial data from the 2000 U.S. census, quantified the growth potential of future residential housing units in four regions. MPO and the Indian River County School Board were able to analyze potential residential development trends and select a new high school site in the area anticipated to experience the largest increase in residential housing units with high school-aged children.

The fact that Indian River County has found so many uses for one GIS-based application points to the versatility of the tool. County staff anticipates the usefulness of the Vacant Land Inventory to grow in parallel with the region's development.

For more information, contact Phillip J. Matson, staff director, MPO (tel.: 772-226-1455); Ryan Suarez, senior planner, MPO (tel.: 772-567-8000); or Prasad V. Chittaluru, Ph.D., P.E., DEE, program manager, Information Solutions, PBS&J (e-mail:, tel.: 407-806-4105).

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