Making Planning More Accessible

Planners at the Town of Cary, North Carolina were tasked by the mayor to make their complex planning process more accessible. In January, they launched a new website that allows developers to play out scenarios on their parcel to see what could work there. Planetizen interviews the people who made it a reality.
March 29, 2010, 9am PDT | Tim Halbur
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The new website tool is called VIP, or the "Virtual Interactive Planner." The planning department has seen a significant reduction in phone calls since the tool went online in January.

Planetizen talked with Dan Matthys, Communications and Information Planner with the Town of Cary and Dave Castranio, Manager and Lead Designer for CRI Designs (the site developer) about the process of creating the site and what planners in other cities could learn from it.

MATTHYS: Our development process is actually pretty complex, and it involves processes that have a lot of "it depends" and "maybes", and it wasn't clear to our citizens when they had a chance to speak and when they didn't have a chance, how long the process was or what the different steps are to that process. So the mayor asked us to develop something that would be more intuitive, and we decided we needed something fancier than some sort of PowerPoint decision-making tool.

PLANETIZEN: So what can you actually do on the site?

MATTHYS: You can go in and actually type in an address, a parcel number or a real estate number and you can set up a development scenario where you say, "This is my property, and I want to develop it as a convenience store." And it will take that decision-making tool and walk you through all the processes. It will show you all the steps that you'll have to do, and here's an explanation of every one in great detail such as when the public can speak and when they can't, your fees, what the town looks for when approving it, what you can appeal if you don't like the decision, and what the outcome is going to be.

But if you're just a developer in, say, California, and you just want to buy an investment property, you can search by the property itself and it will give you all the information about the land use, the zoning, it will give you information that's not in our external GIS system. If the property is zoned for planned unit developments or it is within an area that has been area planned, it'll give you the parcel-specific notes to that plan. It'll give you all the zoning documents that went into that planned unit development.

You can also go in and just search by process. If you want to know what a zoning process is in the Town of Cary, it walks you through that as well. It will do that in what we call the "fun" format, where you can do all kinds of animations and it will walk you through the process.

PLANETIZEN: This seems like such a daunting task, and one most cities haven't tried. Tell me more about your process.

The Town of Cary Staff all came together to make it happen. It involved our public information office in terms of wanting it to have the Cary look and feel; or technology services department, because we had to interface our external GIS system with this search function and the whole program itself. So it really was a lot of people working together to fit all the puzzle pieces together.

CASTRANIO: We used their GIS system to get all the data on parcels and locations of the land in question. Then they made video, which was very well done for inexperienced videographers, and then we put transparent video clips into the Flash to add to the personal feel of it.

PLANETIZEN: This looks expensive. How were you able to afford it?

MATTHYS: Cary itself is a fairly well-to-do suburb of Raleigh. It's got a good tax base. It's by no means recession-proof, but it has weathered the storm better than most. This project was just very important to the mayor, he wanted to put a lot into it.

CASTRANIO: When you count the complexity of a growing area and the complexity of the development, and you consider how much support it takes to work with that. One of the goals of the website is to help support the staff of the town to run more eficeiently, and I think you can easily justify a large project like this.

MATTHYS: The phone calls coming in have reduced quite a bit, and when they do come in we're often point them to VIP. We've had a few real estate brokers and development firms ask us to come out and give presentations on it so they could learn how to use it. And the user reviews were getting are also incredible.

PLANETIZEN: Did you have any discussion about the digital divide? In other words, the number of users who won't have access to the internet and a computer and this might put them on the back foot?

MATTHYS: Cary itself is about 97% with computers and internet access. As I mentioned earlier, we're a pretty wealthy city and one of the most educated per capita in the U.S. So we do have a lot of people that have access to the internet and access it quite frequently. As far as people from out of state, they could always call us and we would walk them through the process over the phone. We also have a computer terminal at the front desk that is solely dedicated to customer use.

MATTHYS: We're seeing a lot of realtors use it and a lot of brokers wanting to know what they can do with their property. We'll have speculators looking at a property and wanting to know, "Can I put a gas station there?" or some other use, and they are now going to VIP before they're calling us.

PLANETIZEN: What advice would you have for cities contemplating developing something like this?

MATTHYS: It was a very rewarding project. There were times when we were pulling our hair out trying to meet deadlines, or trying to put too much information into it in a short time, but it has been very rewarding. It's also increased the efficiency in our department because it has reduced the number of phone calls we're getting that could be answered by something on the computer. So I would say definitely go for it, it will be rewarding at the end but there will be some challenges along the way.

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