The graphics are vivid, with bold colors and sharp detail.
After a few keystrokes, a computer produces a map of impeccable detail, showing water lines and sewer pipes, wetlands and woodlands, property lines and zoning boundaries.
The system -- called GIS (Geographic Information System) -- is the latest rage among government planners looking for new ways to organize and update maps listing tax, utility, zoning and environmental information.
The City Council was duly impressed during a recent demonstration by a consultant who studied how the city might use GIS.
But the price tag is as imposing as the system is impressive, council members said.
Getting GIS up and running would cost the city $2.3 million, with expenditures spread out over 11 years, said Richard Campbell, a representative of Greenhorne & O'Mara Inc., a national engineering and architectural planning consultant based in Greenbelt, Prince George's County.
"I can see the advantages of the system, butI cannot justify the dollars right now," said Council President Kenneth Hornberger.
However, Campbell told the council that over that same 11-year period, the city could save $2.6 million, largely from increased efficiency of city planning and engineering personnel, and from fees paid to the city for access to the system and its maps.
Results could be seen five years after installation, Campbell said, with a projected savings of $51,000 during the fifth year of operation.
Yet one factor working against GIS finding a niche in Westminstersoon is timing, said Councilman William Haifley.
The city alreadyis committing money and effort to building a new City Hall, and there may not be room for another major undertaking, council members say.
"We're already preliminarily committed to going forward with a new city hall," he said. "That to me is of much more importance. We can't afford both of these in the near future."
Still, GIS is something the council members say they will take a look at, even if it requires assembling the system in piecemeal fashion. Members are studying the council-commissioned 62-page report turned in recently by Greenhorne & O'Mara. The city paid $50,000 for the study.
No one questions the utility of GIS, which is showing up in municipal and county planning departments across the state. The system, developed in the early 1980s, also is finding clients in theprivate sector.
"It's a very powerful decision-making tool," said city Planning Director Thomas Beyard.
During the presentation to the council and in the report, Campbell laid out the city government's needs and how they might be met with GIS.
City departments stock a host of maps and engineeringplans, which are used for a variety of day-to-day tasks. There are different maps showing tax districts, utility locations, topography, environmental features, neighborhoods, zoning and roads, among others.
Many maps are old and list outdated and often inaccurate information, said Beyard. Others are misfiled, or borrowed and never returned.
One set of plans found to be missing recently was borrowed 10 years ago, Beyard said.
The aim of GIS is to collect all the information off the legion of maps and blueprints that municipal governmentsuse, and deposit it in a single computer data base. Then a user working on a computer terminal can build a map displaying all the layers of information required for a various use.
Maps also could be periodically revised, quickly and completely.
The system could be particularly useful for city engineers and planners, Beyard said.
"Youcould quickly find a right-of-way width, where an easement
is, the area of a street," Beyard said, "things that seem so simple but take tremendous amounts of time to do."
But it also could be used by a builder, say, planning a residential development on a certain parcel.
The city could charge a fee to provide a builder with a map showing zoning, topography and utilities.
The system could provide the police and fire departments with updated maps of city streets and addresses.
Much of the cost of GIS rests in computer equipment. Another large expense is building the data base, part of which would require aerial photographing of the city.