June 2011
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Orange County Parcel Database Exempt from Public Records Act

There are a couple of different verdicts on this, but where Santa Clara used a security argument and lost, Orange County used a “GIS is a system” argument and won.

It’s a dilemma in general – how do governments recoup the costs for the maintenance of valuable data like parcels.  Do we charge for them, create a fee on development or permits to support this, or make them freely available and note that better access to information will drive economic activity and reduce costs?

In LA, the fact that the parcel database is extremely low cost has helped reduce the duplication of effort, creating a standard mapping base that will improve coordination and development among governments, and is streamlining our emergency response.

See the article below:

GIS Database Exempt From Public Records Act—C.A.


A public agency that maintains a geographic information system database is not required to make the database accessible to the public under the California Public Records Act, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.

In a closely watched case that drew six separate amicus briefs, Div. Three affirmed the denial of the Sierra Club’s petition for a writ of mandate requiring Orange County to make public the OC Landbase.

The OC Landbase is a parcel-level digital basemap identifying over 640,000 parcels of land, with their boundaries, assessor numbers, and street addresses, with links to the names and addresses of the owners and other information.

Members of the public can obtain the database, in a GIS file format, but only if they pay a licensing fee and agree to the license’s restrictions on disclosure and distribution. The database in a GIS file format does not contain any computer programs.

The Orange County Register reported on its OC Watchdog blog last year that the county charges $1 per parcel for Landbase data, up to 100,000 parcels, and a lesser amount for the remaining data. The Sierra Club told the newspaper that the county asked $375,000 for a license to the  entire Landbase system, though the Orange County Fire Authority apparently paid a mere $75,000 for its copy.

If the database were a public record, the county would have to make it available to anyone willing to pay the costs of duplication, which in the case of computer data is minimal, and could not restrict the uses that the party obtaining it makes of it.

The Sierra Club’s request that the county produce the database as a public record was rejected under Government Code Sec. 6254.9, the CPRA exemption for “computer software developed by a state or local agency,” including “computer mapping systems.” Orange Superior Court Judge James J. Di Cesare ruled that the exemption applied and denied the group’s writ petition.

Justice Raymond Ikola, writing for the Court of Appeal, cited legislative history and said the county was correct.

The current wording of the exemption, he noted, was enacted in 1988 specifically to permit the City of San Jose to recoup the cost of developing its computer graphing systems.

“The Legislature, by substituting ‘computer mapping systems’ for ‘computer readable data bases’ in the statutory definition of computer software, narrowed the definition sufficiently to preserve the public records status of most computer-stored information, while excluding from public disclosure a narrow and specific type of database (i.e., a computer mapping database),” the justice explained. “A computer mapping database is not excluded ‘merely’ because it is stored on a computer, but because its development is time-consuming and costly and the Legislature has made a policy decision that local governments should be allowed to recoup some of their development costs.”

The Sierra Club’s contrary argument, that the OC Landbase isn’t a computer mapping system because it contains no programs, would render the 1988 amendment both meaningless and superfluous, Ikola said, “superfluous since section 6254.9’s definition of computer software already includes computer programs.”

The case is Sierra Club v. Superior Court (County of Orange), G044138.


4 comments to Orange County Parcel Database Exempt from Public Records Act

  • tbrowne

    Tax Vs. Pay for Service

    If the political officials are not going to raise taxes to pay for infrastructure improvement, then cities counties and state agencies should have the right to charge a small fee for their data. It did cost Los Angeles County $33,000,000 to complete the land base. Because of Prop 13 (“budget cutting”) the mapping unit went from 40 to 4 people. The County is lucky that the land base got finished. During the first economic recession (1996), I was asked for ideas to save costs or generate revenue. YES, my suggestion was to charge for Index maps.
    If we want high-quality infrastructure we have to find ways to pay for it. The bigger question is do we want to invest in America?
    Thomas H. Browne Jr.

  • tdiallo

    This decision does not make any sense. OC’s GIS dataset is just data. It is not a computer mapping SYSTEM, or a computer PROGRAM , or a computer SOFTWARE. Besides, how can an exception to the law crafted specifically for the City of San Jose be so loosely extrapolated to apply to OC?

  • timsmith

    This will not hold up, someone made a mistake. it is data and data is free.

    • markgreninger

      Hi Tim,

      Don’t know – this might go higher – to the California Supreme Court. I actually met the person from Orange County who oversee their parcel base and he was very happy with selling it. I asked him about how LA County Fire could be able to use it (for example) to support Orange County during fire emergencies, and he mentioned a joint powers method. Do you have that, or do you have their data? I know you cover the city of Brea, right?

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