Foundation makes software accessible

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More than 100 people filed into the exhibit hall at the Routt County Fairgrounds in November to visualize Hayden's future.

It was a defining meeting for officials and planners working to revamp the town's comprehensive plan.

They wanted residents' values and hopes for Hayden incorporated into that plan -- a lofty goal considering the typically cumbersome planning procedures.

This was different, in part, because the town had the help of CommunityViz planning software, which provides a visual context for growth with three-dimensional imaging.

"It brought a sense of urgency to the discussion that I don't think otherwise would be there," Hayden Town Manager Russ Martin said.

The Orton Family Found--ation wants more communities to benefit from the tool.

The organization, based in Steamboat Springs and Vermont, developed CommunityViz and has dropped its price from more than $4,000 to $185.

"Essentially, we're giving it away," said founder and chairman Lyman Orton, who lives in Steamboat Springs.

Placeways LLC, an independent company, has helped make the price reduction possible by providing software maintenance and support as well as distribution services.

Orton saw a need for the software while sitting on a planning commission in Western Vermont and also during Steamboat Springs City Council meetings, where he tried to understand the implications of development-represented map diagrams.

He wanted to make the planning process easier and more engaging for officials and especially for residents.

"Our underlying belief is, if we can get more citizens involved in the planning process, and make it relevant to people living in the community ... then democracy will take its own force and do the best thing," Orton said.

CommunityViz became an important tool in Hayden's effort to create a new vision for the town in the face of large development proposals.

A grant from the Gates Foundation helped fund the software, which also was sold to the town at a "scholarship" discount.

At the November meeting, residents saw a three-dimensional view of large open fields surrounding Hayden, then they saw those fields filled with hundreds of homes.

The visuals were followed by spreadsheets and graphs, showing how much it would cost the town to build and maintain new roads, schools and other services for the homes.

The overall picture helped residents and officials understand the need for commercial development -- and subsequent sales taxes -- to balance residential growth, Martin said.

"It's much easier to visualize growth than it is to talk about it, and that's the real beauty of CommunityViz," he said.

Since its commercial release in 2002, Community Viz has helped about 400 clients in the United States and Canada.

The software has been used in natural resource management, wildfire risk, population projections and other applications.

CommunityViz also was used for a case study measuring the non-economic effects on ranching of increased development in North Routt County.

Last year, the Orton Found--ation decided it wanted to better help communities grappling with growth and shifted its focus from tool development to resident engagement.

The Hayden meeting in November, where the software helped connect the "soul" of the community -- its characters and residents' values -- to the technical aspects of planning and growth, was an example of that effort, Orton said.

"We finally came to a strategic conclusion we'd be better off to get as many communities and organizations to use it and really speed along our philanthropic purpose as much as we could," he said.

For more information about CommunityViz, go to www.communityviz.org.

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