DNR aide devises mapping to help plot land's future

March 03, 1994|By Angela Winter Ney | Angela Winter Ney,Sun Staff Writer

William Burgess can picture it: An Anne Arundel County homeowner strolling through a mall stops at a machine, punches in a code and a computer spits out a map of that person's land, pinpointing wetlands, endangered species habitats and other information that could affect a building permit.

Talk about a timesaver.

That may not happen tomorrow, but it will soon, says Mr. Burgess, 42, an Arnold resident who recently was named 1993 Employee of the Year by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

As director of the enforcement program for DNR's Water Resources Administration, Mr. Burgess has developed a computer system that makes land mapping, once a painstaking and complicated process, quick and accessible.

He started with an existing system that converts satellite images and aerial photographs into topographic maps, and applied it to making maps that the DNR can use to identify wetlands, flood plains and natural heritage areas.

The system, called Geographic Information Systems, allows DNR officials to see what an area is like today and then see how new buildings or other changes would affect it.

Many regulatory programs use maps to determine protected areas, and DNR hopes the GIS process will speed the hunt for those areas and, thus, the process of issuing building permits.

"Bill is a man with a vision for the future," says Dr. Torrey C. Brown, the secretary of DNR. "He had the vision to take our mapping initiative beyond its original scope, creating a tool for environmental management and regulatory activities throughout the state."

About 30 percent of the state has been mapped with the process. Mr. Burgess says DNR hopes to have the entire state finished in two years.

"By using this system, DNR can determine with greater precision whether issuing a permit for a particular site would have environmental concerns, such as effecting an endangered species," Mr. Burgess says.

"Ultimately we'll have it at the public library. We're considering putting in the systems at shopping malls, although we don't have the funding for that right now."

Aerial photographs used for maps sometimes were distorted because of the contours of the land and the altitude of the plane.

GIS takes an uncorrected aerial photograph, makes the appropriate adjustments for the distortion factors, combines it with information about the site and creates a real-world representation.

The old system, which required map makers to carefully transfer boundary lines to new maps was time-consuming and tedious. But with GIS, boundaries are entered into the computer, and the digitized maps are updated precisely.

It's possible to calculate accurate acreage and show features that combine several kinds of data.

For example, Mr. Burgess says, "We're linking it with information on wetlands and trying to project potential habitats for certain species."

The new maps can also be used for research, Mr. Burgess said.

A native of College Park, Mr. Burgess studied water resource management at the University of Maryland's College of Agriculture.

In 1975 he went to work for the state as a member of an oil-spill response team. From 1986 to 1988, he was chief of the Tidal Wetlands Division.

In 1988 he became program director for DNR's enforcement services program.

His current project is figuring out how to make the mapping information available for general use. The difficulty is the extremely powerful computers needed to store the data.

Every map takes about 150 megabytes of computer memory for the map image. Each additional layer of data takes more computer space.

"By the time you've added 50 or 60 layers, you're talking about a lot of data, requiring extremely powerful, expensive computers," Mr. Burgess said. "We're seeing where we can go with technology. It's a question of making it do what we need it to do."

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