BETHEL — For town planners who don’t like slogging through mud and snow to review potential development sites, Newry Planning Board Chairman Brooks Morton has a solution: Use GIS mapping technology to take “virtual site walks.”

Morton brought a large monitor and his laptop to Monday’s selectmen’s meeting to show the board the value of GIS technology in planning.

But before his presentation even began, he unexpectedly had an opportunity to use it to aid in a code enforcement discussion.

Selectmen had learned that a contractor recently drove an excavator across town property, knocking down several trees in the process, to get to an adjacent private property. As they tried to understand the layout of the two properties, Morton came to the rescue.

He called up an aerial photo on the big screen and zoomed in, helping the board and Code Enforcement Officer Dave Bonney to understand the route taken by the piece of equipment.

Bonney was expected to look into the matter.

Returning to the original purpose of his presentation, Morton said he had talked with developers about the possibility of using the monitor in their application presentations to planners, and received a favorable response.

Currently applicants provide maps for each planner.

“If we had the screen mounted on the wall, the applicant could plug in his computer, rather than all us of looking through our [paper] files to get the same map,” said Morton. “It would keep everyone focused, and we’d move through it faster.”

The aerial photos could serve the same purpose as site walks, in which planners schedule on-site inspections.

Morton also demonstrated how the digital maps can be overlaid with other features, such as wetlands.

But, he said, hard copy maps would still be required for records, and would be used with applicants who do not have the technology.

Morton and the selectmen agreed there was also potential for the equipment and technology to be used by town officials, including the Fire Department, for other uses, such as online training.

The board decided to buy the equipment, and chose a desktop for the computer.

Energy savings

In other business, selectmen discussed steps to take to improve energy efficiency for the town.

Town Administrator Loretta Powers said the town could save money on its electrical bills by enrolling online at Electricity Maine. The company’s website says it can sell electricity supplies directly to residential and small business customers at rates below the standard charged by Central Maine Power Co. The board decided to sign up.

The board also discussed an Efficiency Maine evaluation of the 50-year-old town office building.

Bonney listed a number of recommendations, including replacing the furnace and adding insulation.

The furnace, original to the building, had an expected life of 25 to 30 years. “We’re living on borrowed time with the furnace,” said Chairman Jim Largess. “My thinking is we start with the furnace.”

Bonney said the furnace was a priority recommendation from Efficiency Maine.

The board asked Bonney to get estimates for the furnace and duct work insulation.

Implementing all the recommendations would cost about $30,000, he said.

Selectmen also began a preliminary discussion of the 2012 municipal budget, which they will continue at a special meeting Jan. 31 at 5 p.m. at the town office.

Reprinted with the permission of The Bethel Citizen