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Our Insights

Engaging the Public with GIS Stations at Open Houses

May 24, 2019

A deeper understanding. Along with the ability to visually represent data in a mapped format, GIS stations provide a reliable and transparent method for collecting public comments into a single database.

By Sarah Doering
GIS Analyst, Environmental Division

This article was originally published in Currents, POWER’s quarterly Environmental newsletter.

Our clients often host public meetings or open house events to inform the public about planned projects in the area. These meetings are a key component for engaging people in the project planning and siting process and it also helps us understand the public’s primary concerns about the project.  In turn, a public open house can help landowners understand the need for the proposed project and facilitate dialogue and involvement in the planning and siting process.

Using a Geographic Information System (GIS) as a tool at public meetings is a great way to provide the public with a deeper understanding of how the project could affect them.

As a member of POWER’s Mapping and Analysis team, I have the opportunity to show people where a proposed project might cross their land using stand-alone GIS stations equipped with best available aerial imagery and relevant project layers.

Oftentimes, there are several route alternatives to a project. At the station, we can pan around so the owner can see how the project might affect specific areas of their property. We can measure distances and turn on different layers. As a result, the landowner is able to comment on which alternative they prefer or offer a different way to cross their land to minimize the impacts important to them, such as farming practices, views from their back porch or a planned outbuilding.

Entering the data directly into the public commenter application reduces the need for interpreting handwriting and organizes all of the comments into a single database. Additionally, we give each person that visits our GIS station a printed map that shows their mapped concerns and a copy of their comments. It has proven to be a reliable, open and transparent method of gathering and sharing information, and it informs the decision-making process. It can help our clients decide which project alternative to select, reveal possible micro-siting opportunities or locate avoidance areas.

Open communication. Senior GIS Analyst, Aaron Ames, utilizes a GIS station to help communicate the project details and develop a mutual understanding of concerns with local landowners.

What I love most about working the GIS stations at these forums is that it gives me a chance to interact with real people whose lives could be affected by the project I am working on. The landowners are no longer just a parcel ID number on a map, and I’m no longer a faceless person behind a computer running transmission lines through someone’s backyard.

I get to listen to their concerns and answer questions about the project. Many times, landowners come in to the meeting looking worried or upset with the attitude that they have no say in the process. I have often heard angry landowners say things like, “I don’t even know why we are here, they are just going to put the line wherever they want.”

Once the landowner sits down to discuss the project, they can voice their concerns and view the imagery of their home and land relative to the different project alternatives. Then they begin to understand that their concerns will be heard and that they have the potential to work collaboratively with the utility or developer in how the project will be sited.

Recently, a landowner I met with was concerned that the line would be crossing a wetland on her property. After examining the aerial imagery, zooming in and turning on the wetland layer, she was very relieved to see that the proposed line was over 1000 feet from the wetland area. We ended up chatting about her grandfather’s farm, and she was quite happy to give us recommendations for local restaurants.

While it is not always the case that landowners walk away from our GIS station with smiles on their faces, most of the time people do leave feeling like they know more about the location of the project in relation to their home and land. They feel more engaged in the process. They see that they do have a voice and that their concerns will be considered in the process of finding the best route.

Using POWER GIS stations as a method of recording public comments is a tremendous benefit to both the public and to our clients, resulting in better communication, transparency, reliability and, ultimately, better decision making.

 About the Author:

Sarah specializes in wildlife and biological resource studies and analysis. As a wildlife biologist, she has conducted field and laboratory research on several plant and animal species and their habitats. She has developed a proficiency in Geographic Information Systems applied to the mapping and analysis of wildlife, habitat and vegetation ecosystems. Questions for Sarah? Send her an email at sarah.doering@powereng.com