Town signs on for aerial photos to assist engineers, planners

The Riverhead Town Board on Tuesday authorized a one-year extension with a Rochester, N.Y., company allowing them to view aerial images of town property — a move officials said will continue to save the town tax dollars in assessed grievances by giving planners and engineers access to “before and after” photos.

The agreement permits up to 50 town computer stations view the images at what officials call a discounted rate of $1,500. The town has had an agreement with the company, Pictometry International, since 2012.

But is this similar to what officials were doing before 2010, when it become national news that the town’s building department used Google Earth to locate illegal swimming pools and other structures and then issued summonses to those property owners?

No, according to town officials. Supervisor Sean Walter said he stopped that practice when he took office in 2010.

According to assessor Mason Haas, aerial photos are currently used by the town’s assessors, planning and engineering departments, which each pay $500 to help cover the cost of the service.

Mr. Haas said his department uses the photos to fight assessment grievances by comparing field inspections with what existed previously on properties. He said Pictometry has helped assessors win many of those challenges and estimates they’ve saved the town more than $200,000 per year.

“For a $500 investment, we’re saving more than $200,000 per year,” Mr. Haas said. “And remember, for every dollar that gets reduced in a successful grievance, that money shifts to the rest of the taxpayers.”

Pictometry offers more features than the free program Bing Maps does, Mr. Haas said. These include access to images from 2001, 2007 and 2011, and the ability to measure heights, facades and roof pitches at various angles and views.

In addition, Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said, the town’s planning and engineering departments could use Pictometry’s images if a storm knocks back the coastline or damages structures. Determining where things were located before and after storms could be fact-checked with frequent imaging, she said.

“Pictometry is not used to spy on the residents of the town,” Ms. Giglio said Tuesday when the board voted 4-0, with Councilman John Dunleavy absent, to sign the extension.

A 2012 Touro Law Review article written in response to Riverhead’s controversial use of Google Maps reached a similar conclusion, noting that the practice didn’t violate the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protecting unlawful search and seizure.

“These areas are generally visible from publicly navigable airspace and, as such, would not be constitutionally protected from aerial surveillance, including satellite imaging,” stated the article, called “Satellites and Municipalities: One Town’s Use of Google Earth for Residential Surveillance.”

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Touro Law Review's Satellites and Municipalities: One Town ’s Use of Google Earth for Residential Surv…