Search software helps boards and owners find key property information

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Councils buy software, which allows landowners to circumvent mountainous planning rules faster and cheaper.

City planner Jon Richards and business partner Mark Burston sell their data retrieval system to district and city councils. The boards were struggling to keep up with the sheer amount of rules on their books, Richards said.

“We went to a few boards and found that they didn’t have the same version of the plan for the offices to use. When doing a paper research, they weren’t always up to date.”

Isovist co-owner Jon Richards sells software to municipalities, making it quicker and cheaper to find property information.

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Isovist co-owner Jon Richards sells software to municipalities, making it quicker and cheaper to find property information.

Their search system could help homeowners save money by ensuring council staff have the same plan, he said.

Richards and Burston started their Wellington-based business Isovist three years ago after seeing demand for a municipal product in Queenstown, where demand for properties was high and planning staff was in demand. “Everyone was rushing to a lawyer or a planner to find out what to do with a property.”

The Isovist software had been “commissioned” in Wellington City Marlborough, Hurunui and Selwyn districts and was about to be commissioned at Hastings Council. He was also working on a product for the Mackenzie District and Regional Council, Environment Canterbury.

Their software uses filters to allow homeowners to access advice websites to quickly find property information, like rules for building a house or a fence. It rejects irrelevant planning rules.

“We take the plan [the council] to have; we slice it up and we create a database, ”said Richards.

Council planners used the software as a basic search engine in their own offices, he said. Hastings, for example, had around 70 town planning chapters. A mock dig of a Hastings property brought Richards to a handful of chapters: heritage and historical features, proposed district plan areas, a hazard list, and information about the houses of character.

Homeowners could go to a municipal website like Hastings and print a summary version of the relevant rules and regulations on a single A4 sheet; concise – but credible enough to be presented to board staff.

“It’s still legal advice, but what we’ve done is filter out the rules you need to look for.”

A complex council plan – like the one in Wellington City – could hold 3,000 pages of text, while Selwyn had around 1,000. By entering a property’s address or finding it on a map, users who wished could shorten an hour of work and save $ 100 to $ 200 in fees for a real estate consultant or attorney, Richards said. “Basically, you go to a website where you can find all the planning rules in one place.”

An ongoing software license fee costs boards $ 40,000 to $ 100,000, but users can opt for a Software as Service subscription, paying in installments over three to four years. The fees depended on the complexity of the work and the ability to pay.

“We also want to try to tie that to the consent that you can file online, and then the board can track how those consents work. So that really improves their quality of service.”

The company hired college students to manually load each council’s set of rules and plans into Isovist’s search system. Recording each board’s data used to take about three months, but it’s now down to six weeks, Richards said.

Isovist has a partnership with Eagle Technology, a New Zealand distributor of Esri, an American software company that uses data and applications to produce digital maps. Richards said he used his “core” product and added additional functionality to his consulting research.

So far Richards has been equipping Isovist around a day job as a planner with the New Zealand transport agency in Christchurch. In a few days he will be at Isovist full time, alongside five employees with planning and IT skills. “It was a pension plan, but it has grown into something bigger,” he said.


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