Oct 15 2007

X Marks the Spot

California maps help land developers spot project conflicts with restricted airspace or military sites.

Land developers and municipal planners in California will soon have online access to aerial photographic maps that let them know if projects are straying too close to sensitive military areas, thanks to efforts under way by the state’s Resources Agency.

The color maps will overlay aerial photography, similar to that now available on Google Maps, with military and municipal markers so that planners know whether projects lie within 1,000 feet of a military base or beneath restricted air space. The maps are expected to be available online by January 2008.

A current version of the online tool, known as the California Military Land Use Compatibility Analyst (CMLUCA), already lets users pinpoint their project on an illustrated map by clicking a mouse or, for more accuracy, typing in geospatial coordinates. Once the data are entered, users can tell within seconds if they need to get U.S. Department of Defense approval before proceeding.

But CMLUCA has drawn mixed reviews from county and city planners around the state since it was launched 18 months ago, according to a recent survey by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research. The lack of aerial photography, which some developers prefer, is one of the drawbacks. The new online tool will let users zoom to one meter from the ground.

Despite such photographic detail, it doesn’t pose any new national security risks, says John Ellison, agency information officer with the California Resources Agency. “It’s a general concern with these types of applications, but that horse is already out of the barn,” he says. Google, Microsoft, and Redlands, Calif.-based Environmental Systems Research Institute already offer high-resolution aerial photography, he notes.

Ellison and other state planners hope the new tool will ease land-use conflicts, as California’s population swells and commercial and residential developments creep ever closer to military bases. Despite base closures in recent years, California still has more than 50 military installations that directly affect local jurisdictions. Meanwhile, the state’s population is expected to grow 50 percent in the next 40 years, with a projected 2050 population of 54.8 million.

Potential conflicts prompted the California state legislature in 2004 (SB 1462, Chapter 906, Kuehl) to mandate local governments to notify the military if local development takes place near military installations. CMLUCA is the result.

CMLUCA has been a boon to developers in Kern County, which is home to Edwards Air Force Base and Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake as well as the nation’s second largest wind-based electrical industry, after Texas. More than 3,700 turbines — some towering 400 feet — are located in the county, which is crisscrossed by commercial and military flight corridors.

“Looking at FAA and military maps is overwhelming for most developers,” says Lorelei Oviatt, division chief of the Kern County Planning Department in Bakersfield, Calif. “You don’t need an advanced degree to use CMLUCSA. It’s essentially an early warning system for developers before they invest time and money.”

Julia Lave Johnston, senior planner, California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, agrees. “While planners would be able to use the military GIS layers on the California Digital Atlas, OPR felt that it might be challenging for development applicants,” she says. “We wanted the legislation to be effective and meet its objectives of better coordination between the military and local planning activities but we did not want it to be onerous for anyone at the local level.”