Aquinnah assessors’s office enters digital age

On first blush it’s easy to be blasé about the new on-line digital assessors’ map in Aquinnah that can be viewed by anyone, anywhere, anytime from the comfort of their home.

At a time when you can do just about everything online — buy groceries, book a plane ticket, download music and even publish your first novel — the idea of an electronic assessors’ map might seem, at least at first, rather pedestrian.

But not so fast, because this new on-line geographic information system (GIS) system that went on line Dec. 31 not only improves the flow of information and provides a single point for gathering all types of property information. It’s also pretty cool.

“Yea, it is cool,” town assessor Angela Cywinski said. “Anytime we can get more information to the townspeople, then that’s pretty cool.”

Last month, during a virtual tour of the new digital mapping system, available on-line www.caigisonline.com, Ms. Cywinski said the new system can provide every type of information imaginable, including aerial maps, dimensions, assessed values, the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and much more.

When you visit the site and click on Aquinnah, you are shown a map of the town and given the option to zoom in on any parcel, with the option to identify the owner and view photos of any buildings on the property or link to the property card on file at the town hall.

Among other things, the property card lists current assessment, previous assessment, the current owner, previous owners, building permit records, appraised value, utilities, and details about the home right down to the number of bedrooms and type of heating system.

There is also an option allowing the user to research areas of interest near a particular parcel — from Witch Pond to the Aquinnah Public Library — and another option allowing users to view a contour map showing the topography of the entire town.

Another feature shows federal flood zone maps, and another shows Martha’s Vineyard Commission data like the developments of regional impact (DRIs), districts of critical planning concern (DCPCs), and ancient ways.

Still another feature shows the original 1870 Indian Common Land of Gay Head map as a digital overlay.

The concept of a digital assessors’ map is not entirely new to the Vineyard. Each of the six Island towns have had some form of a virtual map for quite some time now; but those maps were only available in-house for town employees, and not accessible on line to the public.

But that changed in late December when the new system, designed by Cartographic Associates, Inc. of Littleton, New Hampshire, went on line. The Edgartown assessors’ department followed suit a few days later with their own on-line mapping program, also designed by the same company.

Meanwhile the boards of assessors in West Tisbury and Tisbury have already voted to hire Cartographic Associates to create an on-line mapping system, which could go live within the next few months.

Oak Bluffs has in-house digital assessors’ maps, but they are not available on line to the public. The board of assessors may consider an on-line mapping system in the near future, but not until a funding source is identified, principal assessor Dianne Wilson said.

Chilmark also has in-house digital assessors’ maps, but there are no plans to create an on-line assessors’ map, largely out of respect for people’s privacy, said assistant assessor Pam Bunker.

Ms. Cywinski is proud that Aquinnah was the first Island town to implement an on-line mapping system, even if they beat Edgartown by only a few days. It’s been quite a transformation for the assessors’ department, which prior to Ms. Cywinski’s hiring had no full-time assessor and at times suffered from poor organization and record keeping.

In 2006, in an attempt to bring a more professional approach to town government, the selectmen asked the Department of Revenue’s Division of Local Services to conduct a review of the town’s structure, personnel and general financial practices.

The ensuing DOR report was especially critical of the assessors’ department, finding that the office did not maintain accurate, up-to-date records while suggesting the town hire a full-time, state-certified assessor.

After Ms. Cywinski was hired in March 2007, she oversaw the town’s most complete revaluation in more than a decade. She also corrected inaccurate property records, eliminated elderly exemptions granted incorrectly, and updated and corrected faulty town records.

With the move to an online mapping system, the department is nearing the conclusion of complete turnaround, and Ms. Cywinski couldn’t be happier.

“I can remember when I started we had these old Mylar maps,” she said, referring to the trade name of the old polyethylene maps, known for their transparency and tensile strength, that the town used for property maps.

“If you wanted to make a change, someone would have to draw the new lines by hand. Really we had to switch to digital maps . . . we couldn’t even get Mylar anymore,” she added.

The new on-line mapping system will cost the town $1,800 a year, Ms. Cywinski said. The town will still use their Vision Appraisal software to generate property cards for all the parcels in town, but has already discontinued using that company’s web hosting services.

The new mapping system makes the whole department more efficient and will save money in the long-run, Ms. Cywinski said.

She has set up a computer terminal outside her office where residents can visit the on-line mapping system, view a folder with property values; or link to the websites of the Secretary of State, state tax board of appeals, the Department of Revenue and Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

“That right here is like having an extra person,” she said, waving to the computer outside her office. “We can’t afford to hire a second person for the department, so this is the next best thing. People can go on line and get what they need, and if they can’t go on line, they can come here and get the information here, whether I’m in the office or not.”

“It’s really cool,” she concluded. “And I’m so happy we were the first to do it.”