How We Got from Stone to the Cloud - History of the National Cadastral Records

February 6, 2019

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This article is brought to you by Boundary Solutions

There is archeological evidence that cadastral (property ownership) mapping came into being upon humans deciding to settle in one place and become food producers instead nomadic hunter gatherers, moving about for food. In Ancient Egypt, paintings in tombs depict registration of land to provide proof of ownership. The fundamental principles that applied to those ancient methods of maintaining public records about land, its use, and ownership still apply today.

From its earliest inception, all records in a Cadaster eternally had to face the following three challenges - 1) Accuracy 2) Completeness and 3) Accessibility by all. This is a problem solution story about surmounting all the technical and cultural hurdles over the many years so all those parcel boundaries can appear on your computer screen. This history ends with the next step, a game-changing breakthrough in ‘CONVENIENCE’ that will enable the National Parcel Layer to better benefit government, commerce and private citizen more than ever before.



SOURCE: UNKNOWN               

Who Said What?

This history of the Cadastre is according to a National Parcel Layer Content Server Provider (NPLCSP) twenty years in practice, 40 years in GIS. In addition to best efforts to accurately mirror information and recommendations in the public records, some findings and conclusions are drawn from this NPLCSP’s proprietary National Parcel Layer metadata database of the digital parcel map operations for every county in the USA, including completeness, terms of use and data fee. Also referenced are NPLCSP notes taken when attending 22 National Geospatial Advisory Committee (NGAC) meetings from 2011 to 2016. Long time acquainted with NGAC’s very open, congenial and useful collaboration, this NPLCSP made regular Open Time contributions to this discourse.

Back to History

At first a Cadaster was recordation on Papyrus of markers substantial enough to survive annual flooding. Not much changed in Roman times where it became quite popular among predatory emperors’ as a tool for larger and easier taxation. Ancient (and not so ancient) practice referenced both markers and natural features that do not necessarily survive, leaving Accuracy to conjecture. Following a complete collapse of Cadastral use with the fall of Rome, it slowly reemerged in Europe to serve two missions, one to Collect Tax and the other to Define Ownership. Hence, ‘Multipurpose Cadaster’. In the run-up to the industrial age, many new innovations were adopted to improve accuracy and accountability included the sextant, transit, telescope and Cartesian space.

By mid-20th century, the advent of the computer age changed everything. Textural parcel records went digital in the 50s and geospatial parcel boundaries followed in the 80s. The production and deployment of digital parcel maps by/for counties started with Computer Aided Drafting and Design (CADD), expediting plat map drafting and updating. The digital plats were soon stitched together into digital countywide geographic information systems able to join tax roll attributes to topologically actuated parcel boundary polygons. The price tag was high at first. Seven figures were not uncommon since only mainframe and work stations computers were able to do the job. In the early ‘80s, drawing a line on a screen started at $160,000 for 4 work stations. In 1984, Southern California Edison expanded the storage of it CADD system to 19 GB. That and servers to manage a systemwide database cost just a mere $2.6M. In less than 10 years, the PC revolution caused the per GIS seat price (all hardware/software) to plummet to $7K, unleashing a storm of digitizing. By 2000 over 1,200 counties were maintaining, to different degrees of completeness, modern digital parcel map databases, some open, and some not, to public access.

Land Information System

By the early seventies, mounting pressure to develop with nature, instead of against it, caused the Multipurpose Cadastre to become a popular base map layer in an emerging ‘Land Information Systems’ revolution. Driven by Ian McHarg’s game-changing book, Design with Nature, the other ‘Factor Maps’ included soils, land use, slope, hazard, amenities, services, etc. No computerized GIS yet? Not even Automated Mapping? Like the one shown below, San Mateo County Planning Department did a manual version by mounting two prongs on the short end of a 6’X4’ light table and building a pin-registered Land Information System of 15 pen-and-ink drafted-on-mylar ‘factor maps’. Parcel boundaries, rescaled from D sheets, as rescaled from plat maps, was one of the layers. Subarea derivative maps from this master map drove eight planning programs, all approved 5-0 supervisorial votes. In 1978, Association Bay Area Governments (ABAG) used the Coastal Zone portion of this Land Information System to create BASIS, Bay Area Spatial Information System, a very early environmental baseline of a major region. Being a raster system, BASIS was too early to include vector polygons yet.



SOURCE: Report, Need for a Multipurpose Cadaster, National Academy Press 1980.

The highly affordable technology platform available today has in large part resolved the first two 3A challenges: Accuracy and Completeness. Thousands of counties are posting daily updates of complete cadasters of every parcel in their county as well as the tax roll attributes that go with it.

Elusive Accessibility

For thousands of years, to observe the record required a trip to the record since it could not come to the observer. As for leaving with a copy, the cough-loud-as-you-tear-the-page-out-of-the-book method is dramatized by Jack Nicholson in the movie Chinatown. Copy machines just increased industry’s appetite for ever more instant access to parcel records rather than a trip to the county seat, the only option before the fax machine. That the Internet enables instant online access by anyone to any parcel record, one would think that the Accessibility is Solved! Technically yes. Culturally, not so fast. Yes. It is a public record and MUST be shared at the cost of reproduction. However, since the real cost at the time for sharing a paper record was typically around a dollar per record, many counties opted to apply legacy rates to all the parcel in the digital parcel map and use the high data fees to run the Assessor’s Office. That the tech was so new, assessors (and their consultants) hid behind the Public Records Act somehow not applying to digital parcel boundaries.

By 2,000, Los Angeles County was charging $90,000, Santa Clara $160,000 and Orange $360,000. In 2005, a response to a citizen’s petition to the California Attorney General whether these fees violated public record law was Opinion No. 04-1105: October 3, 2005, that ruled a digital parcel record IS a public record and must be shared at the cost of reproduction. Los Angeles County immediately went to $3, but it took two expensive lawsuits to get the others to go open records by court rulings based largely on Attorney General’s Opinion 04-1105.

High fees that persisted elsewhere spawned a cottage industry of top cadastral GIS consultants, who, in addition to providing advanced tech services, promoted a self-serving policy combination of urging broad use of digital parcel maps in conjunction with staunch defense of closed records. The resulting high cash flows assured sustainability of this practice at the expense of everyone else. The no fee vs. high fee controversy came to a head when a request by the International Association of Assessor Officials (IAAO) resulted in the publication of IAAO Magazine article, "Broad Use of Digital Parcel Mapping and Tax Base Growth." This study compared the growth rate of the total assessed value of all parcels in a county (tax base) in open records counties (charging <$200) to closed record counties charging more. Trend analysis, and subsequently regression analysis, provided clear evidence that open record counties’ tax base grew ~24% faster during the study period than closed record counties.



IAAO Magazine, ‘Broad Use of Digital Parcel Mapping and Tax Base Growth’, March 2009 Volume 7, Number 3

Quite controversial when published, this report eventually made its way into the Federal Geospatial Data Committee (FGDC) Bibliography for the Parcel Summit held at USGS Reston Offices in October 2016. Over the years, this IAAO report arguably contributed to the change in data prices shown below. Open records, particularly free (over 1,000 counties in 2019) also rewards GIS managers who have over the years discovered that, like a poker game, the pot is so much larger when 1000s are at the table making investment decisions because the data is free vs. the usual 5 or so at the table when the price is prohibitive to all others. Open record shops find at budget time the business community is actively on their side, insisting at budget hearings on more funding for ever higher excellence (and pay raises) easily funded by the additional money in the community generated from increased development fees and accelerated tax base spawned by transparency.



SOURCE: BSI Metadata Database

National Parcel Layer and Emerging Issues

Transparency cannot come soon enough. Increasing frequency of Climate Change induced disasters makes closed records a threat to public safety by constraining access by 1st responders to potentially lifesaving information. For example, the free-for-requesting Butte County digital parcel map out-or-the box was loaded enough with attributes (value, owner, use, unit count) to produce the maps below. They show the most efficient, lowest impact infill areas for affordable housing to reduce traffic gridlock, and in this case, resettle Paradise Fire refugees. Don’t just Recover. Evolve!



Federal Government Role in Initiating a National Cadastral Layer

Theme of the National Map. FGDC efforts to date have been extensive and effective in advancing Cadastral data goals and standards at the Local, State and Federal level. Right at the cusp of technology becoming able to support spatially actionable databases, the National Research Council convened a large committee of top academics, scientist and government leaders to produce a milestone Report, Need for a Multipurpose Cadaster, National Academy Press 1980. The Report included a Vision for a nationally integrated land parcel database that has gone essentially unchanged since. Paraphrasing, it calls for …

A distributed system of land parcels housed by the appropriate data stewards but accessible through a central web-based interface supported by a minimum set of attributes, overseen by a national coordinator.

This initiative was much discussed at the 22 NGAC meetings attended by this NPLCSP. Meeting notes mentioned earlier chronical the FGDC's successful attempt to establish to house the Seven Themes of the National Map. On the downside, also chronicled is FGDC's (officially) unsuccessful attempt to provide a plan for establishing a Depository of National Cadastral Databases as the 7th Theme.

A recap of the most widely accepted findings was compiled by the FGDC in Congressional Research Service(CRS) Report on Issues Regarding a National Land Parcel Database (Congressional Research Service 7-5700 R40717). It repeated the findings of the 2007 National Research Council (NRC) report which described a vision of a distributed system of land parcel data housed with the appropriate data stewards but accessible through a web-based interface. It further stated:

  • Federal Land Parcel Coordinator responsible for federal lands (BLM)
  • National Land Parcel Coordinator responsible for parcel data from all sources (BLM)
  • There is currently a lack of a coordinated federal program for parcel data.
  • FGDC to explore role of the parcel as Cadastral theme in National Map and how it can expedite               development of the other 6 themes
  • Coordinator for data standards, collection and deployment
  • Financial incentives to be provided to local governments.
  • Local and State Governments required to make aspects of their parcel data available in the public domain to be compliant with federal geospatial program funds.

The goto agency for National Cadaster policy is, as its name implies, the FGDC Cadastral Subcommittee. While an able and active agent in the past, there are no new entries on its web site since 2016

Though the record officially calls for the creation of a central repository of parcel boundaries supported by a thin attribute set, there is officially no position on the ways and means for doing it. Instead of leaving it blank, the proposal below (light green) is pure this NPLCSP’s conjecture, fueled on lessons learned at NGAC and bottomed on an attempt at an equitable relationship between a federally sponsored central cadastral repository and the private NPLCSP industry. Perfect world, it poses a built-in guarantee for universal authenticity highly desired by federal interests by insisting that only content sourced direct from authoritative sponsor is allowed on board and none other.



Perhaps it may take years (decades) before all cadastral content sourced exclusively from authoritative sponsors is universal and the National Cadastre is complete and every county-state internet link is in place. Holding out all content except that attained direct from authoritative sponsors will maximize incentive for funding the completion of every county in the NDSI until the most derelict counties in the most derelict States are part of a web of competent contributors to the National Cadaster. A basic blueprint for structuring such a central cadastral repository is this public domain figure below which has served as a basic design of all Online National Parcel Layer Service Systems to date.



SOURCE: PATENT 9501209, 9760649 National Parcel Map Data Portal

National Parcel Layer Content Services Today

With the advent of the cloud, multiple private sector NPLCSPs have emerged, some of which source parcel map content direct from the counties. The rest are resellers. Private sector mapping services are mixed with 3rd Party Tax Roll attribute data, typically more complete than data direct from the assessor’s office. Deployment ranges from bulk data dumps direct to an enterprise to build their own online parcel GIS and/or REST systems and keep it current. REST (Representation State Transfer) offers geospatial information as pictorial displays of parcel boundaries for draping over legacy operations.

 At the other extreme, subscriber accesses a SINGLE ‘actionable’ digital parcel map database online as though the content were on the Subscriber’s server. It has not been until recently that geotech has had the capacity to deliver such power. As seen below, the advantage of one live database serving all is that the mounting and maintenance of the Subscriber’s Server has been replaced by a NPLCSP logon.



Market interest in better enabling the authoritative data sponsors to create and keep current ever more accurate and complete cadastral databases will never stop being better. As for federal efforts to form a National Parcel Data Repository, even if it takes DECADES, this NPLCSP recommends best way to expedite universal capability of all NSDI Cadastral participants is to eternally preclude ANY 3rd Party content being in the mix. The next epoch in deployment is now in place enabling broad delivery of live, fully actionable geospatial parcel content on instant request, ever increasing the broader range of beneficial services the National Cadaster can bring to government, commerce, and private citizens everywhere.


"The History of Cadastral Surveying and Its Relevance to Civil Engineering",

"Need for a Multipurpose Cadastre", National Research Council National Academy Press 1980,

CRS Report on Issues Regarding a National Land Parcel Database, Congressional Research Service, May 13, 2011, ttps://

U.S. Government Real Property Asset Data Standard, a Geospatial Data Content Standard, FGDC Standards Working Group FGDC-STD-019-2014,

"Issues Regarding a National Land Parcel Database", Peter Folger Specialist in Energy and Natural Resources Policy May 11, 2011,

FGDC Cadastral Subcommittee NGAC Update ‐ June 2011,

Boundary Solutions, Inc. 3,142 County Digital Parcel Map Metadata Database, 2001-2019


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