Eye-in-the-sky busts not necessarily a bad thing

08/05/2010 12:00 AM |

Attention anyone skirting town code or the tax man when it comes to the addition of decks, sheds or swimming pools: You should know that town officials are likely watching through aerial photograph services. And you should get used to it.

The town and county, as well as neighboring towns such as Southampton, for years have been using such services — free and otherwise — to bust property tax cheats, probably to the benefit of everyone else who owns up to those valuable additions. So this week’s news, which spread like wildfire through the media, that Riverhead building department head Leroy Barnes used Google Earth to crack down on unpermitted pools came as no surprise to us. And, frankly, gave little concern.

There’s nothing illegal about Mr. Barnes scanning our neighborhoods in search of swimming pools whose property owners never acquired the proper permits.

Disconcerting? Maybe to scofflaws and some others. But not illegal. Not as of now, anyway, and probably not in the future, either.

For those worried about dreaded slippery slopes and privacy issues on philosophical grounds, let’s get real for a second. What’s so invasive about Mr. Barnes scanning a picture of your old lawn mower or weed whacker or your overgrown vegetable garden? It’s not as if the town is using live action cameras to spy on your activities — something that would, of course, be illegal.

Plus, our friends and neighbors also all have access to Google Earth, Bing Maps and other free aerial photograph software that’s available online; there’s nothing to hide in the backyard anymore.

And if the technology prevents our neighbors from building illegal decks, patios and pools, then good for our neighborhoods.

Codes are in place for a reason.

As a matter of policy, if Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter wants to restrict the use of aerial footage, and use it only to spot pool violations — citing safety concerns — that’s OK. It’s the taxpayers who decide whether he stays in office.

But there’s a balancing act there, too. Barring town officials from using aerial photographs may please some, or even most, residents. But generating property taxes and fees through permits and violations is one way to keep overall taxes down, and one way to be fair to those who have already paid for permits and gone through the hassle of applying for certificates of occupancy.