Every time Jackson County highway commissioner Randy Anderson gets a right-of-way question for a county highway, it involves hours of research and someone thumbing through decaying paper deeds.
After months of work, Jackson County will soon be unveiling new right-of-way mapping data that will allow anyone to look up a right-of-way on any Jackson County highway very quickly.
“It is such a timesaver. You can look something up in a matter of seconds on your computer versus going through the old plans or going through the files or the deeds,” Anderson said. “It took so long every time somebody would call about a right-of-way question, we had to spend sometimes hours doing research on it. Now it is a matter of seconds or minutes.”
Pro-West & Associates out of Walker, Minnesota is the company that has been helping Jackson County with the project.
“What we have done is have them research all right-of-way that we’ve purchased, all the right-of-way we have listed on the plans that we have in the office, deeds, just so that we have all of the right-of-way put on a map,” Anderson said.
Lisa Schaefer, geospatial data specialist with Pro-West & Associates, feels this will be a beneficial improvement for the county, “You are getting people out of the filing cabinets and into a much more time efficient way to see those documents and you are protecting those source materials from extra handling.”
The new data is expected to be available next year as a feature of the current Jackson County interactive mapping website, which is available to the general public.
“Portions of it are available if we contact the GIS person and ask for it, but it’s really not ready for the public to access yet,” Anderson said.
This new mapping data would display right-of-ways for the 231 miles of county highways, which make up 15.6 percent of the roadways in the county.
While state statutes say 33 feet from the center line is the statutory right-of-way, there are times when the right-of-way deviates from that definition.
“There was a need expressed by the Highway Department to know their jurisdiction along county highways. Usually that’s a right-of-way offset from a center line, purchased right-of-way or easement right-of-way. Many of the times though it is not as easy as saying 33 feet from the center line,” Jackson County GIS specialist April Schoolcraft said.
The idea for the project came from Anderson, who is also the highway commissioner for Clark County.
“Randy, since he is also the commissioner for Clark County, basically knew they had something similar to what he wanted,” Schoolcraft said.
Jackson and Clark counties are not the only counties making the move to digital.
“A lot of highway departments are probably still dealing with paper, but I think it is becoming more and more prevalent that they are seeing the need for a digital tool or web interface to help them find all of their information a lot more efficiently,” Schaefer said.
Schoolcraft said there has been another benefit to the process, “They came and actually scanned all of our large-format plans and plats and in that process we are getting a lot of these paper copies digitized, so that’s nice because we can house them digitally instead of depending on old records falling apart.”
During the process, Jackson County has also found some issues with their right-of-ways going back many years.
“There was a period of time where the state DOT was not really allowed to petition the landowners within the county for right-of-way, so they would use the county highway commission to allocate those lands as right-of-way. From there it should have been a jurisdictional transfer from the county highway department to the DOT,” Schoolcraft said.
The documents recording these events are not always easy to find and sometimes were not recorded with the county Register of Deeds. Instead the documents were recorded within each district office of the DOT. Jackson County has an added wrinkle because it lies between Eau Claire and La Crosse, so some of these records went to each of these district offices, making finding these documents harder.
Jackson County has also had to go back to old state highway plats to find some county highway right-of-way information because some county highways used to be state highways like Hwy. A between Black River Falls and Hixton, Hwy. FF near Northfield and Hwy. O near Millston.
Schoolcraft hopes the new system will be beneficial for all, “It is not going to alleviate all of the research we are going to have to do with all of these roads, but it is going to make it more accessible to the public and to us.”
Kendis Scharenbroich, vice president of Pro-West & Associates, thinks this new feature will be very welcoming to the employees that deal with right-of-way questions, “The fact that the county is doing a project like this is very forward-thinking and it will be transformative for them to get their right-of-way information centralized in a digital format.”
Once the mapping tool is available, anyone can use it on the Jackson County interactive mapping system, which can be found online at jacksoncowi.wgxtreme.com.