Building department ends ‘eye in the sky’

Riverhead Town’s building department discontinued the practice of using the Internet to locate illegal swimming pools two weeks ago, building department coordinator Leroy Barnes revealed last week.

Mr. Barnes and the town made national headlines in August, when it was reported that his department was using Google Earth — a free Internet mapping service that shows aerial photos — as a way of scoping out illegal pools.

Mr. Barnes said the department had been using Google Earth to spot illegal pools for about two years, and that about 240 pool scofflaws were brought into compliance as a result.

But Mr. Barnes told the Town Board on Thursday that he has directed his staff to discontinue the use of Google Earth in enforcement efforts and that the practice was abandoned Aug. 24.

“After all the press and consideration, we do under the law have the right to do it but, as a citizen, I don’t think I would like it either,” Mr. Barnes said. “But I didn’t try to go overboard with it. I dealt only with safety issues.”

Mr. Barnes said he used the service strictly to locate illegal pools, which are a safety issue. He said he didn’t use it to make money for the town, “although nobody believes me.”

Supervisor Sean Walter joked that Mr. Barnes discontinued the policy “after Sean Hannity debated you on it,” referring to the Fox News commentator who was critical of Riverhead’s use of Google Earth for surveillance.

Councilman George Gabrielsen has prepared a resolution adopting an official policy restricting the use of virtual globe map and geographic information programs.

The resolution reads: “Many residents, together with local and regional community groups, have expressed their objection to and fear of eroding privacy rights by the Town of Riverhead building department’s use of virtual globe map and geographic information programs … to identify and initiate prosecution against residents in violation of Town Code provisions.”

The proposed policy prohibits town employees, other than police, from using such aerial services to initiate or commence prosecution of Town Code violations.

It does, however, allow them to use such services to “supplement” information gathered from inspections or investigations, and allows their use in places “where there exists no reasonable expectation of privacy,” such as areas that can be seen from public spaces.

It also prohibits the use of Internet services to conduct “sweeps” in place of field inspections and investigations.

The Town Board was expected to vote on the policy at its Wednesday meeting. (Check for an update on that vote and other matters before the board late yesterday.)

Mr. Barnes said no one was ever prosecuted based on information gathered via Google Earth, and noted that during the time it was in use, the department conducted two amnesty programs that waived fines for people who brought their illegal swimming pools into compliance with code.

He also pointed out that other towns pay for such services, and that Riverhead turned down a proposal to use such a service for a fee in 2009.

Councilman John Dunleavy said he doesn’t think the proposed policy is needed because other towns already use services like Google Earth for enforcement efforts.

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