Land parcel databases, which are also known as cadastres, describe the rights, interests, and value of property. The legal boundaries of land parcels are defined in the deed to a property. A surveyor confirms these measurements anytime the property is subdivided or platted, or in boundary disputes. Ownership of land parcels is an important part of the financial, legal, and real estate systems of a society. Real estate tax parcels are typically graphic representations of the land ownership to support property taxing functions. These maps are often used as the parcel maps for a jurisdiction. The aggregate set of land parcels represents the distribution of the real property assets of a community and its ownership, forms the basis for all land use and zoning decisions, and represents the location of residences, businesses, and public lands. In other words, almost every aspect of government and business can be associated with a land parcel.
Land ownership has been critical to the economic and philosophical development of this country. Hernando De Soto (2000) describes how our Western system of clear private ownership of land allows entrepreneurs to launch successful businesses by borrowing against their real assets; this option is not available in his native Peru or other parts of the developing world. Richard Pipes (1999) argues that all individual freedoms tie back to individual property rights. The right to vote in the United States was originally restricted to those who owned property and, it was felt, had a stake in the government. Land ownership is seen as desirable and rewarded with income and property tax reductions. Americans’ strong sense of identity and self-determination is closely tied to land ownership. Uniquely among developed countries, we trust our local government to manage our rights in the land—from recording documents to controlling land uses. We would not trust control over land to be handled at higher units of government.
This fragmentation of land information and control has been a problem for this country because it has allowed for a widely varying range of availability and quality of land parcel data across the nation. Some parts of the United States have been able to use this information about land to greatly improve the quality of life for their citizens, while others have not. In some places, local government has been able to use land information to create jobs, improve the environment, distribute the tax
burden equitably, and even save lives. Other, more remote and less affluent counties or local governments have not profited from this range of benefits. At a state or national level, we have been unable to rely on basic parcel information because of its spotty availability and nonstandard format.
Although many land parcel data exist in the United States, they are not entirely in digital form, they are not in a common format, and they are certainly not consistently available across the nation. In 1980, a National Research Council (NRC) study, Need for a Multipurpose Cadastre (NRC, 1980), asserted the importance of parcel data within an integrated system of land information to support the wide range of decision making necessary for effective land management. The report acknowledged that land parcel data can only be developed and maintained at the local government level, but that the federal government must foster the integration of these local data sets through a set of consistent standards, funding programs, and coordination with each state. Much of what was said in the 1980 report is still true today. The needs for a national land parcel data set are more widely recognized, and the benefits from maintaining a system have been clearly demonstrated by numerous local governments. Perhaps most importantly, although the 1980 report was optimistic about the development of a multipurpose cadastre, it was also realistic about the major organizational and institutional obstacles that existed.
Twenty-seven years later, much has happened. Early in the twenty-first century we are immersed in location-based information systems—we rely on in-car navigation systems to get us to new destinations, keep track of people on parole with global positioning system (GPS) enabled bracelets, and find restaurants and hotels through a web browser or cell phone. Citizens can now use their home computers to routinely access information about their property taxes, seek information about the purchase of their next house around the corner or thousands of miles away, or explore the world with virtual globes such as Google Earth.1 In the current geographically aware age it is clear that the private sector has assessed user needs and determined how to take advantage of sophisticated GPS satellite location capabilities, easy-to-use and responsive mapping and geographic information system (GIS) technology, and database integration engines to attract millions of users and make a profit. However, even these sophisticated systems have a fundamental weakness. In many cases they can direct you to the right city, the right neighborhood, the right street, even the right block. Yet they cannot get you consistently to the correct property or the correct building.
Most city, county, state, and federal government agencies have not kept pace with many technical advances. While private companies such as Zillow2 are able to retrieve and display maps of property values for much of the nation in a few seconds, digital records for property ownership along the Gulf Coast following Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma were largely nonexistent in the aftermath of the hurricanes, and public agencies were left scrambling to assemble some form of property information that could identify the location, value, ownership, and extent of damage to thousands of pieces of property and structures. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently reported that the absence of these critical documented property records resulted in millions of dollars in fraudulent claims (GAO, 2006a). Therefore, although it is clear that an integrated set of land parcel data is needed and possible, it still does not exist in the United States. The purpose of this study is to assess why and to determine whether the environment has changed to make such a system more palatable, plausible, and practical today.
STATEMENT OF TASK AND APPROACH
The goal of this study was to highlight the status of land parcel databases in the United States, provide a vision for the future, and develop a strategy to complete this National Spatial Data Infrastructure framework data layer. Specific tasks included the following:
Identify the benefits of accurate parcel databases to all stakeholders (public and private);
Describe the current status of parcel databases across the nation at all levels of government;
Document what has been shown to be possible at a local, regional, and state level, using examples of successful systems; and
Provide a vision of what could be possible nationwide, and identify a strategy to achieve the vision, including the role of the federal agencies, and accounting for challenges that must be overcome.
This study was sponsored by five organizations, including the Bureau of Land Management, the Census Bureau, the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC), the Department of Homeland Security, and Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI). The study committee was composed of 10 members with expertise in the development of cadastres, surveying, property assessment, county administration, the mortgage information services and insurance industries, and the use of geographic data and tools for public policy. The committee included representation from various levels of government, including county, state, and tribal. It also included members from academia and the private sector.
The committee met four times. One of the meetings was a Land Parcel Data Summit, which brought together senior representatives from federal agencies, the private sector, and professional organizations that develop and/or use land parcel data (see Appendix C). Comments on a national land parcel data set were also received from a much broader group of 400 practitioners, end users, and other stakeholders via an online forum. Finally, the committee made extensive use of published documents and reports on the current status of land parcel data in the United States, templates for cadastral standards, and examples of successful systems and case studies on the uses of cadastral data from various sources, such as the FGDC Subcommittee for Cadastral Data.
Although there are several possible definitions for land parcels, one of the simplest and most persistent is the one included in Multipurpose Land Information Systems: The Guidebook (Epstein and Moyer, 1993, p. 13-2):
A parcel is an unambiguously defined unit of land within which a bundle of rights and interests are legally recognized in a community. A parcel encloses a contiguous area of land for which location and boundaries are known, described, and maintained, and for which there is a history of defined, legally recognized interests.
The FGDC Content Standard for Cadastral Data uses a similar definition but recognizes that a parcel does not have to be contiguous. For the purposes of this report, a parcel is defined as the primary unit of surface ownership, including public and privately held lands. In many local jurisdictions (counties and cities), the surface ownership is represented by the real estate tax parcel. This is the unit of land ownership that is most often maintained and used by local governments, represents the immediately visible ownership, and provides a definition of the landscape that will meet most business needs. For publicly managed parcels, such as lands managed by local, state, or U.S. agencies, the comparable unit to the real estate tax parcel is the surface management parcel.
On federally managed lands, the surface management parcel is the area defined by management activities such as permits, leases, or acquisition areas.
For private property there is usually a one-to-one match between a real estate tax parcel and a deed that represents the legal title for ownership of the parcel.3 Geometrically a parcel consists of one or more closed polygons that can be defined by geographical coordinates on the earth’s surface and can be uniquely identified for indexing purposes. The parcel polygon graphics used for the purposes of nationwide data will not be sufficiently accurate to support title conveyance, but should be sufficiently accurate to support real estate taxation purposes.
Subsurface rights, such as mineral, oil, and gas or groundwater extraction rights, and fractionated surface interests such as solar easements and transferable development rights are an important component of the description of rights and interests in land. In most local jurisdictions the deed recording functions and real estate tax operations do not map, index, or track these nonsurface rights. The committee recognizes the critical importance of these rights and their management and also recognizes the initiatives of the FGDC Subcommittee for Cadastral Data to define the business case, the data needs, and the implementation challenges for these rights. Once a complete surface ownership inventory has been developed, issues related to these other interests can be addressed. Therefore this report focuses on surface ownership.
The set of parcels for a jurisdiction is often depicted on a parcel or tax map that is used by an assessor to publicly display boundaries of parcels. It is important that these maps be publicly available and accessible. “The land-transfer process in North America is founded on the principle of publicity, the concept that all information relating to the nature and extent of interests vesting in a legal parcel of land must be available for public inspection” (NRC, 1980, p. 9). While a tax map displays lines and areas (polygons), primarily it is a simple index to critical information that is associated with land parcels (Figure 1.1). Therefore it is common practice for a community to systematically collect and maintain a set of parcel information that is associated with each parcel and becomes the basis for queries, analysis, and reports.
Parcel information includes the various attributes linked to the parcel that describe properties such as ownership, improvements and easements, zoning restrictions, and values and assessments on the land and its improvements. Generally this information is found in deeds, plats, tax bills, assessment records, or zoning ordinances and building permits. Parcel information is collected and maintained across the nation in local government offices, assessors’ offices, state agencies, and tribal and federal databases. Box 1.1 describes these common attributes of land parcel data.
Although easements and rights-of-way are important attributes of parcel data, these are often partial interests in the land that can be constructed on top of the parcels. Therefore, similar to the discussion of subsurface rights above, the committee felt that once the parcel data are completed the issues related to these other interests can be addressed.
In a local government information system, parcels become the primary units for managing information about land rights and interests. Land parcel data are closely related to the concept of a cadastre, which is the “record of interests in land encompassing both the nature and extent of these interests” (NRC, 1980, p. 5). Using this definition there can actually be several different cadastres. For example, the legal ownership information may be maintained by a recorder of deeds who is interested in the juridical cadastre. On the other hand, the tax assessor does not get involved with disputes over land ownership but does maintain a fiscal cadastre. (The 1980 NRC report contained an excellent historical perspective on the evolution of cadastre issues; see NRC, 1980, Chapter 1.)
The 1980 NRC report made a strong case for intergovernmental coordination to create a multipurpose cadastre that would benefit a wide range of stakeholders. It provided a definition that has become part of the history of the automated information systems (NRC, 1980, p. 13):
The multipurpose cadastre system is designed to overcome the difficulties associated with these more limited approaches by (1) providing in a continuous fashion a comprehensive record of land-related information and (2) presenting this information at the parcel level. The multipurpose cadastre is further conceptualized as a public operationally and administratively integrated land-information system, which supports continuous, readily available, and comprehensive land-related information at the parcel level.
A land information system is a specialized GIS. Epstein and Brown (1989, pp. 1-5) provided the following definition of a land information system: “Land information systems are ‘the data, products, services, the operating procedures, equipment, software, people—the sum of all the elements that systematically make information about land available to users.’”
In this report, the terms land parcel database or land parcel data set are used in the more general sense to refer to groupings of land parcel data for an area.
Finally, the county is often used throughout the report to refer to the fundamental unit of local government that produces parcel data. This is meant to include county equivalents such as boroughs, city and boroughs, municipalities, and census areas in Alaska, parishes in Louisiana, and cities
Common Attributes of Land Parcel Data
The value of land and improvements is sometimes called assessment orappraisal and is information about the worth of the land and buildings. A property tax bill includes an assessed value of the buildings, land, and other improvements. This information is determined by assessors based on the rules for valuation in a specific jurisdiction. If land is sold or mortgaged, it is common to get an appraisal. This is a valuation by a private agency that determines value in terms of an asset.
This in formation describes who owns or manages the land. Typically, it gives the name of the owners, but it also includes the description of how they own the land and exactly what rights they have on it. Information about ownership is contained in deeds, mortgages, and other documents that are commonly stored in county or local government registers of deeds offices.
Land Use and Zoning
This is information about regulations on the use of land established by a government agency. The most common of these is zoning. Regulations are different from the restrictions on use that may be in the chain of title, such as those from restrictive covenants. The term “regulations” is applied to government-imposed limitations, and restrictions are limitations that are in the chain of title. Terms and conditions agreed to by both parties in a lease are yet another potential type of limitation on use.
Address is one of the first things we learn about parcel information. There are mailing addresses and site addresses. The site address ZIP Code might not be the same as the mailing address ZIP Code. The site address or parcel location might be in one town, but the mailing address in another town. When we talk about address with parcels, we are talking about the site address, sometimes called situs. This describes the location of the parcel with respect to the street from which it is accessed. The site address usually includes knowledge about the structures or improvements on the property and some information about those structures, such as whether they are multiresident, have multiple entrances, and other details.
The parcel is an area of land that is constructed from legal descriptions contained in deeds, on survey maps and plats, and may be shown on tax maps. The legal description contains information on the boundaries that make up the parcel area, the relationship to other parcels and surveys, and gaps and overlaps between parcels, all of which are essential to accurate parcel maps. The legal description is the framework for the tax or ownership parcels and may be tied to boundaries and corners.
SOURCE: Adapted from von Meyer, 2004, pp. 5-6. Copyright © 2004 ESRI. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
that are independent of any county in various states. The committee also recognizes that individual incorporated areas such as towns in New England, or cities or municipalities in general, often maintain parcel data independent of the county. However for simplicity the term local government or county is often used in this report to refer to all government agencies below the state level that produce parcel data.
Chapter 2 includes background information that describes the changes since 1980 in geospatial data policy and technology that influence the development of parcel data. Chapter 3 discusses the needs for and benefits of nationally integrated land parcel data by entities at the federal, state, and local government levels, as well as private citizens and private industry. Chapter 4 describes the current status of parcel data in the United States, as well as in other countries for comparison. The challenges that must be overcome to develop complete national land parcel data are laid out in Chapter 5, and Chapter 6 provides a vision and model for what nationally integrated data could be. Chapter 7 makes recommendations for overcoming the obstacles and barriers to developing this national land parcel database and for achieving the vision described in Chapter 6.