Larry Stipek isn’t the guy who started Loudoun County’s high-tech mapping program, but he’s pretty close.
Over his career with Loudoun, the soft-spoken geographer has overseen the county’s Geographic Information System’s growth from a way to keep track of environmental resources, like streams and trees, to become the backbone supporting work in almost every county department.
He retired on Friday.
Loudoun first bought GIS software in 1986, one of the first counties in the nation to do so. Stipek, who joined in 1990, said the software immediately paid for itself when the county used it to help site an expansion to the landfill on Evergreen Mills Road.
“If you made the wrong decision, there’s a huge cost associated with that,” Stipek said.
It also gave the county the first clear idea of where things actually were. Loudoun has very old parcels of land, some surveyed by George Washington himself. But between age and the tools used at the time, those maps could be far from accurate.
Early in Stipek’s career at Loudoun, the mapping department launched into a three-year effort to correct the land records.
“A parcel had to be in the right place, it had to be within, I think, 15 percent of its recorded size, obviously it had to fit within the map,” Stipek recalled. “And so we would research a whole bunch of parcels, and map them to those rules. If a surrounding parcel no longer fit within the rules, then we’d go research it.”
Of course, that also meant that some property owners got a shock over what their property actually was.
“There was a big debate at the time whether we wanted to release those on the world,” Stipek said. But the ultimate decision: there’s no better fact-check than publication.
“You can’t think of a better quality control for your data than putting out to people,” said Mike Fauss, the GIS Land Records Manager. “Everybody knows everything about their own piece of property, and they are happy to tell you.”
“What we decided was, OK, that’s fine, we’re going to release it to the world and if they find problems, we’ll fix them,” Stipek said.
So Loudoun got its first-ever map accurate to modern standards.
Now, that mapping is done in large part through aerial photography. Every year since 1979, Loudoun has commissioned new aerial photography of the entire county. The county also has historical aerial photography dating to 1937, and maps dating to 1853. Some are obtained from aerial photography firms downsizing and giving away their old film. One set of photographs from the 1950s came to the department through a fluke of good luck.
“One of our former coworkers in another department walked in with an armful of aerial images he had found in a trash bin and asked if we want them,” said Kristin Brown, GIS Manager for the Development and Analysis Division.
Today, the mapping is within feet or inches.
It is also at the heart of almost every department. First responders’ computer-aided dispatch is built on the mapping department’s geographic information system. County planners and assessors use the department’s maps and databases. The department even shares data across the region. The county’s GIS locates everything from streams, to fire hydrants, to zoning districts, to election districts. And the demand for the mapping department’s work only grows.
“Three months ago, we had three web servers, and today we have 19, so the system is just growing exponentially,” Stipek said.
The department is also rolling out more and more tools for Loudouners to use, like one to find out who is responsible for plowing the roads at a specific address. That’s at Loudoun.gov/roads.
“One of the things Larry told me is that the data only have value if people can use it,” Brown said.
With that legacy behind him, Stipek and his wife are off to do their favorite thing: travel. They have been to 60 countries together, and a world map in the office bristles with pins marking places he and the other mappers have visited. A glass cabinet is packed with proudly displayed souvenirs, sorted by tackiness. The Stipeks have seen pirates on the South China Sea, and been followed for two weeks by the Russian FSB.
But for now: “We’re going to Chicago for Thanksgiving, and then Tennessee for Christmas, and then we go to Morocco in the spring,” Stipek said. “And then we go around the world.”
He’ll see Fiji, Seoul, Kathmandu, Dubai, Bucharest, and London before coming back home to a place he knows better than anyone: Loudoun.
See historical imagery of Loudoun at https://logis.loudoun.gov/archive/