Implementation of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in Environmental Permit Compliance for the City of Celebration, Florida


The City of Celebration is a planned residential and commercial community on approximately 8000 acres in Osceola County, Florida being constructed by Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI). The majority of this land is under permanent conservation as part of the mitigation plan for the proposed wetland impacts resulting from the construction of Celebration. Due to the high profile nature of Walt Disney World and WDI, it was imperative to establish a pro-active approach to project permitting. It was determined that an integrated system of data bases and spatial features needed to be created, using ArcInfo and ArcView, through which permit compliance would be forecasted and monitored. Additionally, this system had to focus on user friendliness and the ability to maximize efficiency, eliminate redundancy, and provide consistently reliable information for project managers.

It is the purpose of this paper to describe the research process undergone for system development, system implementation, and reporting and query functions. Emphasis will be placed on the types of spatial and attribute data utilized, how this data was collected and converted, and the method of organization determined to maximize query speed and provide quick access to the most utilized information. Additionally, this paper will detail the benefits of such a system with regard to post-permit compliance within WDI and for the Celebration development effort.


The City of Celebration is located in Osceola County, Florida. Celebration is a planned use community consisting of residential, commercial, recreational land types and associated infrastructure. Permitting for this project began in the early 1990's with Walt Disney World obtaining a master development permit for the future build-out of their current land holdings. This was shortly followed by the granting of approval for a Development of Regional Impact (DRI) by the local regional planning council specifically for the Celebration development. The development is phased, with ground breaking having occurred in early 1994. By October of 1994, Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), the entity managing property development, had already amassed over 50 permits from multiple agencies with extensive compliance requirements. The rate of permit issuances for this project was expected to rise significantly resulting in thousands of permit conditions which needed regular action. It was necessary to develop a user friendly and electronically based system to organize the permit information. The goal of the system was to maximize efficiency, eliminate redundancy, and provide reliable information to WDI project managers.

Exhibit 1. Downtown Celebration Under Construction

Exhibit 1. Downtown Celebration Under Construction

Determining the Role of GIS

The first step in establishing a permit management system is to gain an understanding of how best to organize the data to meet the needs of the end users. In this case the end users were various WDI project managers focused on different elements of each individual project site. Therefore, the interface to this system needed to be simplistic and easily customizable. In addition, it was determined from the outset that a common identifier needed to be created for each proposed Celebration sub-project because the same projects often went by different names depending on with whom you spoke.

WDI has long been utilizing and benefitting from multiple layers of GIS information for their property. This GIS data had been collected throughout the planning stages for this property several years prior to the development of the permit tracking system. Therefore, a great deal of graphical information for the Celebration area was readily available in ArcInfo format. We quickly keyed in on the ability of using the graphical representation of each project site within Celebration as the link to the extensive data base of permitting information. By interfacing with a graphical representation of the project area we could thereby eliminate the multi-named project problem and provide the user with a much more comfortable interface than a pure spreadsheet or mainframe application. Due to the extensive developments of the ArcView software and Esri's commitment to the future development of the software, we chose to formulate a method of organizing the data for use by ArcView. The windows environment of this software made it a logical choice for both user friendliness and the ability to customize applications for the end users.

Data Collection


Data collection started with the creation of a listing of all of the permits that had been obtained to date for all of the projects within Celebration. As we formulated the list, we simultaneously gathered information from the potential users as to what types of questions they would like to be able to ask a permit management system, what were their reporting requirements, and how they currently went about obtaining and relaying such information. The permit list was entered into an Excel spreadsheet with additional pertinent project information such as a project description, the permit number, the issuing agency, the permit type, the issue date and the expiration date. Finally, two parties were assigned to each permit for compliance purposes. A responsible party was assigned as the individual designated to complete any permit compliance tasks, and a permit manager was assigned to oversee the process and default as the responsible party if the aforementioned person was unable to complete the required action.

Table 1. Excerpt from Celebration Permit List

Table 1

After creating the permit list, we began to actually accumulate hard copy versions of every permit obtained to date. For this purpose, a permit notebook was developed, which in time evolved into a data dictionary for the system. Each permit was numbered for cataloging and reviewed for the purposes of determining what types of actions were required by the various conditions and by when did the action need to be completed. These required actions and applicable due dates were handwritten in the margins of the hard copy permits for future reference. This process enabled us to compile a complete list of potential permit condition requirements for which abbreviations were developed. The required action abbreviation list was also added to the permit notebook for reference. A data base was then developed in Excel in which each record represented an individual permit condition. The fields of information established for each condition included: identification number, permit notebook number, project name, secondary project name, permitting agency, permit type, agency permit number, condition type, condition number, required action, due date, date completed, responsible party, and permit manager.

The text of the individual permit conditions was entered into a third Excel spreadsheet with the first column representing the permit condition identification number, the second column representing the condition number of the respective permit, and columns three through fifty providing cells for entry of the condition text. This was and remains the most time consuming effort of maintaining the permit management system. However, it was important to WDI to keep the data formats consistent and provide an easy mechanism for key word searches throughout the data base in the event a required action did not provide sufficient information to answer a question. For example, the required action for a water turbidity reading would be WQR for water quality reading. The project manager may be more interested in finding all the permit conditions relating to turbidity. This data base structure would allow for that key word search capability.

Finally, for those permits requiring water quality or groundwater level readings, a tabular data base was created for documenting the permit and condition for which each location was required, the frequency of the reading and the type of station. Each station, if not already possessing an identification code was provided one for linking purposes. The water quality sampling and groundwater level was already being compiled in Excel and became immediately available for linking within ArcView utilizing the station identification number as the common attribute.


As previously mentioned, several existing graphical layers were available for Celebration. One of the more noted features of Celebration is a large wetland system, Reedy Creek Swamp, that surrounds the property. Another is the existing highway corridor for Interstate 4, which bisects the project site. These features were therefore chosen to provide the background or geographical reference for the project areas. We chose to keep the reference information simple due to the many individual project areas that were to be added over time to the graphical interface.

Exhibit 2. Depiction of Base Graphical Data

Exhibit 2

As part of the stormwater management permitting process, vegetation and soil maps are produced for each project. These maps are produced using GIS polygon overlays with a project limit boundary, usually provided in AutoCAD or MicroStation format, from various outside consultants. The receipt and conversion to GIS of this project limit line provides the only required graphical element for linking of the permit data bases. As this CADD entity is converted to ArcInfo for the early permitting process, it is readily available for incorporation into the permit management system at the time of permit issuance.

For those projects with permits requiring water quality or groundwater level readings, point readings are established within ArcView utilizing the shapefile tool. Since these points were only providing a link to the permitting information and charting, detailed survey information was deemed unnecessary.

Data Organization

The specific reason for separating and organizing the data into three separate spreadsheets was based on the answers to our original questions of the potential end users regarding the anticipated information requests, how this information would be reported, and how they currently went about their permit compliance procedures. The users wished to access permit lists for each project most readily. It was important for them to see very quickly which permits and approvals had been obtained to date for a particular area so they could determine what might still be outstanding. Secondly, they wanted to know what actions were required by each permit and when these actions were to be completed. In most cases, this information needed to be provided to the user in summary without detailed text describing the action. Finally, if the responsible party or permit manager wished to understand the full scope of the permit requirement they would turn to the detailed permit condition text.

The first data base link, therefore, occurs between the graphical entity representing the project area and the master permit list. These features are linked based on a unified project name not essential to the user. Once added to the permit list, a particular permit or group of permits can be selected enacting a secondary link to the required action data base. This link is based on the permit notebook number which is the common attribute in these two data bases. Utilizing the permit condition identification code or sequence number as the common element, the final link between the required action data base and condition text data bases was performed.

Exhibit 3. Depiction of Tabular Data Linkage

Exhibit 3

Related data such as water level recording stations, water quality reading stations and their associated data were finally incorporated. This data and other secondary data were included last since their priority was lower. Other secondary data included scanned documents, images, and charts.

Data Utilization

The ArcView permit management system is primarily utilized in three ways: queries, reports, and compliance action tracking. First, queries are frequently run on the system to generate answers to frequently asked permit related questions. Examples of this might be: what permits have been obtained to date for a certain project, when does a particular permit expire and what is required for renewal, what are the requirements for a particular permit, and what are the permit requirements during any fixed time period. Other queries are run on the text of the permit conditions themselves, searching for key words having importance to a particular work effort.

Additionally, specialized reports are generated on a monthly basis from the permit management system to provide Celebration City managers thirty and sixty day permit requirement outlooks and the status of the previous month's permit compliance activities. Queries are first run on the date fields for the permit condition required actions. The results are then exported to dBASE IV format and then inserted in pre-formatted Excel spreadsheets. Finally, the spreadsheet reports are accompanied by an ArcView produced map reflecting the project parcel polygons for which required actions need to occur within projected periods. This process brings the graphical and data features together to produce a very informative management tool.

Exhibit 4. Depiction of Query Result for Conditions Requiring Action During June 1994

Exhibit 4

Finally, the management system is used to track the occurrence of permit compliance activities. There are several facets to the compliance manager component. First, a notification letter is generated along with each outlook report for each permit required action. These notification letters are transmitted to the responsible party and copied to the permit manager as is documented in the database. The date of notification is logged in the system and, as soon as a reply is received, this reply date is also logged. This procedure allows for quick queries showing the responsiveness of responsible parties to the action request. This provides project managers useful information for managing the post-permit requirements. In addition, the actual date of occurrence of the compliance action is recorded in a separate field. This gives the GIS permit management system user the ability to query for all conditions for which actions were completed during a specified time. Alternatively, a query could be run for all conditions requiring actions during a time period allowing the user to quickly see which actions are still outstanding.

The secondary data (i.e., water level and quality) is utilized primarily in conjunction with the ArcView charting function. Charts are produced of the water level and water quality reading results for use in general site review and for inclusion in monthly and annual permit compliance reports.


In most respects, the GIS permit management system would be considered a non-traditional usage of GIS and ArcInfo. However, this application of GIS, specifically ArcInfo and ArcView, opens many new avenues for information management. Using graphical data as an entry way to multitudes of linked data bases promotes user friendliness and yields considerably more informative results to the end user. The ability to provide an informative map or picture representative of tabular data is an advantage not easily offered by any other permit management system.

In developing a GIS permit management system it is important to focus on common elements between your graphical and tabular data as you would in any GIS data base formation. However, it is quite necessary to prioritize the information input to such a system. This is paramount because when utilizing GIS for an information management process it is easy to become overwhelmed by the volume of information that can be entered and managed.

Finally, a GIS permit management system or similar GIS information management system requires several customized features to promote and encourage use. The ArcView interface and Avenue programming language provide the necessary environment and tools to modify and simplify the permit tracking application. These features allow the system to have the highest degree of customized efficiency while simultaneously maintaining the necessary simplicity.

Donna M. Huey, Senior Scientist

Post, Buckley, Schuh & Jernigan, Inc.

1560 Orange Avenue, Suite 700

Winter Park, Florida 32789

Telephone: (407) 647-7275

Fax: (407) 647-0624