Riverhead shuts its ‘eye in the sky’

Riverhead Town’s building department discontinued the practice of using Google Earth to locate illegal pools two weeks ago, according to building department coordinator Leroy Barnes.
Mr. Barnes and the town made national headlines in August when it was reported that the building department was using Google Earth — a free internet service that shows aerial photos on maps — as a way of identifying illegal pools.
Mr. Barnes said he’s been using Google Earth to locate illegal swimming pools for about two years, and that about 240 illegal pools were brought into compliance as a result.
But Mr. Barnes told the Town Board on Thursday that he has since directed his staff to discontinue the use of Google Earth in enforcement efforts. He said he discontinued the practice 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 strictly used the service for pools, because illegal pools are a safety issue. He said he didn’t use it to make money “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 Town’s use of Google Earth for surveillance.
Councilman George Gabrielsen has prepared a resolution adopting a policy restricting the use of virtual globe map and geographic information programs.
The Town Board is expected to vote on the policy Wednesday at its 2 p.m. Town Board meeting.
“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, commonly referred to as satellite imagery, or coined ‘eye in the sky’, to identify and initiate prosecution against residents in violation of Town Code provisions,” the resolution reads.
The proposed policy prohibits town employees, other than police, from using such aerial services to initiate or commence prosecution of Town Code violations.
However, it does allow them to “supplement” information gathered from inspections or investigations with information gathered from aerial services, and it allows their use in places “where there exists no reasonable expectation of privacy,” such as areas that can be seen from public spaces.
It prohibits the use of such services to conduct “sweeps” in place of field inspections and investigations.
Mr. Barnes said no one was prosecuted as a result of his department using Google Earth, and that they even had two amnesty programs, in which fines were waived so that people would bring illegal pools into code compliance.
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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