Orange County court denies Sierra Club low cost access to parcel map system

An Orange County Superior Court judge ruled in a lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club  that the California Public Records Act (CPRA)  did not require the county to provide its Landbase parcel map system at little or no cost. In a ruling last year a state appeals court ruled in a First Amendment Coalition lawsuit that Santa Clara County had to release its parcel map system under the CPRA. -db

May 24, 2010
By Ronald Campbell

A judge has ruled that the California Public Records Act does not require Orange County to release its digital mapping system at little or no cost. The decision allows the county to continue to charge thousands of dollars to users of the Landbase parcel map system.

The Sierra Club said it may appeal the ruling by Orange County Superior Court Judge James J. DiCesare. The club had sought low-cost access to the system so it could use the county’s maps in its conservation campaigns.

Landbase contains the precise boundaries of all 640,000 taxable parcels in the county — every house, office building, store and bit of unimproved land. It’s a Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, which means those parcel boundaries can be used with other computerized maps displaying slope, earthquake and landslide hazard zones, watersheds, wildlife corridors and hundreds of other themes.

Its precision and ease of use with other GIS maps makes Landbase valuable to developers and environmentalists alike.

And it’s pricey. The county charges $1 per parcel for Landbase data with a cost break after the first 100,000 parcels. The club said 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.

The club sought Landbase under the Public Records Act, which limits the price to “the direct costs of duplication.” In the case of computerized data, that’s typically the cost of a few blank DVDs.

So the lawsuit boiled down to this: whether Landbase is a public record, disclosable under CPRA, or if it is software, which is exempt from CPRA.

DiCesare ruled that it’s software.

“It appears that this is not a dispute over production of public record but rather the form of the production and at what cost,” DiCesare wrote in a 4-page opinion. ”The cost of production in GIS format includes a software licensing fee that (the Sierra Club) may pay like all other GIS formatted information requesters pay.”

Peter Scheer of the California First Amendment Coalition said DiCesare’s ruling was “most unfortunate. The court clearly got it wrong.”

Last year the Sixth District Court of Appeals in San Jose ruled in a lawsuit brought by Scheer’s group that Santa Clara County had to release its GIS under CPRA.

Santa Clara County had demanded $250,000 for its GIS data in 2006. Santa Clara raised the software exemption at trial, where it lost, but based its appeal on other grounds — national security, copyright and CPRA’s “catchall exemption.”

We should note that Freedom Communications, The Register’s parent, signed a court brief in the Santa Clara case siding with the First Amendment Coalition.

The GIS dispute is the second big O.C. public records fight where county officials have declined to release information deemed public by judges elsewhere in the state.

The Orange County Employee Retirement System is resisting a CPRA request for the names of county retirees collecting at least $100,000 annually. Judges in Contra Costa and Stanislaus counties have ruled that data is public.

Not in Orange County, the folks at OCERS say.

The Watchdog will be keeping an eye on this and will let you know if the Sierra Club files an appeal.

Copyright 2010 Orange County Register Communications