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Land Rights GIS for Utilities – Worth the Investment
Land Rights GIS for Utilities – Worth the Investment

In many areas of the country, utilities are among the largest property owners.  Transmission lines, distribution lines, substations, generating facilities, corporate offices, and operating offices all require land rights either in the form of easements or real property. Whether it’s for a new transmission line to connect an industrial customer, a new substation to serve a growing community, or the relocation of a distribution line for a road-widening project, utilities are continuously acquiring new land rights and/or modifying existing rights. As a result, they are constantly changing.

Like a county tax assessor, utilities are required to track and record all of the changes to their land assets. This data is a key element of facilities planning, operations, and maintenance.  Utilities are regularly faced with land rights questions that require answers.  Which easements have ingress and egress rights for this line?  What property is available for new facilities?  Is there enough space to relocate existing facilities without acquiring new land rights?  Which unused properties can be sold?  How wide is the right-of-way at this structure?  Are there rights to trim trees along this easement? Which properties have mineral rights?  Answering these questions can require extensive research due to the fact that land rights are historical in context and legally complex.

The real answer to these questions: Geographic Information Systems (GIS).  GIS lets utilities visualize, maintain, and analyze their land rights and facilities data to help this process. One of the biggest challenges to building a GIS land base for utilities is the capture and incorporation of land rights data as a spatial entity.  The ultimate goal is the ability to click on a facility on a map and see all of its pertinent land rights information and documents in one place.

Having reliable land rights data easily accessible through GIS allows utilities to respond to the demands of a dynamic regulatory environment.  As more events that demonstrate critical infrastructure-reliability issues occur, utilities turn to their GIS data to help them respond.  One particular event occurred on August 14, 2003 – the Northeast Blackout in which five high-voltage electric transmission lines failed due to contact with trees. These incidents combined with system failures in the area contributed directly to the loss of power for more than 50 million people.  In response, the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) adopted Electric Reliability Standard FAC-003-2 requiring regular vegetation management on power line rights-of-way of certain high voltages.  The adoption and enforcement of this standard highlights the importance of reliable land rights GIS data and its use in utility vegetation management plans.  Knowing the location and extent of tree trimming rights along a right-of-way is critical to maintaining the safety and reliability of electric lines and maintaining good relationships with impacted land owners.  Producing vegetation management plans for rights-of-way without the aid of GIS would be a very time-consuming and difficult process.

Utilities were some of the earliest adopters of GIS and they have increased their use significantly over the last 30 years.  It’s always been an attractive concept to progressive managers who can see beyond the initial capital costs to the ultimate efficiencies and savings it can provide.  The process of spatially enabling land rights data for a utility is a significant expense initially, but the efficiencies that this effort produces will increase over time throughout the utility.  Many utilities have land records that span 100 years or more in the form of paper, microfilm, or scanned images.  Deeds, conveyances, plats of survey, easement agreements, engineering drawings, company memos, and other documents are used to assemble the history and current extent of land rights.  The digital conversion of these documents alone is an expensive and daunting task, but it is important to approach this effort with the goal of spatially enabling this data.  With GIS, the investment is returned in the form of faster and more accurate property research, stronger analysis and reporting capabilities, and increased operating efficiencies.  The land records system and GIS can make valuable data easily accessible and expedite the work of researchers and legal staff. In short, it can make things a whole lot easier for all involved.

Land Rights GIS for Utilities – Worth the Investment

The 2003 New York City blackout (left): Primera's Mike Andrew (above)