A landowner in Hampden, Maine, stopped by the town office complaining that his neighbor’s new driveway was encroaching on the property line. To determine if a boundary had been breached, town officials printed off a state-of-the-art computer-generated map, created by combining aerial photographs, global positioning system points and databases.
In the coming year, that same detailed information about any parcel in the 39 square miles of the central Maine community will be available online.
“The town is way ahead of the curve in terms of using GIS (geographic information systems),” says Gretchen Heldmann, Hampden’s newly appointed GIS and information technology specialist who stepped up to help direct the town’s efforts. “Many towns contract out for GIS and most only have black-and-white, hand-drawn parcel maps made by the assessors that are then digitized. Hampden has invested in taking its maps to the next level of accuracy by contracting out for high-resolution, Earth-referenced aerial photos that will be used as our base map.”
Heldmann has spent the past year helping the town get up to speed on GIS mapping and digital data management. Her stint started with a summer internship in 2005 that involved working as a member of a team to produce more accurate, user-friendly tax maps. Heldmann then helped her assessing and code enforcement coworkers in the municipal office learn how to use specialized mapping software.
Working part-time for Hampden throughout her senior year at the University of Maine as a forestry major, Heldmann tackled the town’s computer system — or lack thereof. She developed a five-year, cost-saving action plan to phase in new computers and improve consistency of the 50 computers scattered throughout the town — from the municipal building to the public library.
Another of her major projects this past summer was developing better maps to aid the police and fire departments.
“Towns like Hampden need one IT person for consistency,” says Heldmann, who started working on computers at age 5. “Individual people working for the town don’t have time to learn the more in-depth (computer) stuff, and they shouldn’t have to.”
Heldmann gained her GIS know-how at UMaine, where courses in the technology are required for forestry majors. With her computer savvy, GIS came naturally to Heldmann. It also fit nicely with her desire to work in forest policy and management.
This fall, Heldmann is in UMaine’s master’s program in forestry, conducting research on land use change in the state. By surveying landowners and collecting such information as agricultural use, tree growth and tax payments on property, Heldmann plans to create a GIS model to characterize the likelihood of parcels being developed.
For years, Heldmann has been interested in how forests can be managed to coexist with urban development. She is driven to find the answers because of the heavily developed areas she grew up seeing in her home state of Connecticut.
“Maine has such a great land use history. I don’t want Maine to become like Connecticut.
“I’m not one of those people from away who wants to change Maine,” she says. “I want to help the people of Maine maintain that heritage of public use of private land. And I want to make sure there are areas near urban areas where people can go to experience nature.”
September – October 2006
Image Description: Gretchen Heldmann