High-tech crackdown on illegal pools raises privacy fears

Riverhead has used the satellite image service Google Riverhead has used the satellite image service Google Earth in the last nine months to snag about 250 homeowners who have swimming pools but no required permits. Photo Credit: iStockphoto

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If you live in Riverhead and have a backyard pool that doesn't have a permit, beware: The town is using a new tool to find you without ever setting foot on your property.

In a move other Long Island towns may copy but privacy advocates say raises "Big Brother" concerns, Riverhead has used the satellite image service Google Earth in the last nine months to snag about 250 homeowners who have swimming pools but no required permits.

Riverhead's Chief Building Inspector Leroy Barnes Jr. eyeballed properties on the Internet and identified those with pools, then compared the list to records of homes with pool permits. Violators were told to get the permit - for around $300 - or face a hefty fine and penalties, which vary. All but 10 complied, Barnes said, generating about $75,000 in permit fees for the town.

Barnes said he targeted pools - after discussions with town leaders - because of safety concerns. Without permits and the required inspections, pools can be hazards, he said, because there's no way to tell whether fencing, electric and plumbing work for such pools meets code and state safety regulations.

"Pool safety has always been my concern," said Barnes, who acknowledged that "a lot of people don't like the idea of an eye in the sky."

Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., is one of them. She said Google Earth was promoted as an aid to curious travelers but has become, like other satellite image services, a prying eye for cash-hungry local governments.

If municipalities get comfortable using the service to look for pools without permits, Coney asked, what comes next? Nabbing people with overgrown lawns? Seeking out unregistered vehicles on private property? "The technology is going so far ahead of what people think is possible, and there is too little discussion about community norms," she said.

Town says it's safety issue

 

Barnes said town officials decided not to use Google Earth to look for things like sheds that are too close to side yard lines because such violations aren't life-threatening.

Riverhead Town Councilman James Wooten said board members discussed Barnes' plan and were concerned about the use of satellite images and privacy, but there was more concern that someone might drown.

"The fact that it was pools was more important than anything else," Wooten said.

Several violators said their pool company hadn't told them about permit requirements or followed through on their own with town officials, as required.

"Some pool companies tell people they don't need a permit for an above-ground pool," Barnes said. "Others take out a permit application and never call us for a final inspection."

Town Attorney Dawn Thomas said she was not involved in advising Riverhead leaders about their decision to use Google Earth but has no problem with the approach. The owners of unapproved pools who did not respond to Barnes' warning, Thomas said, could face more serious penalties like summonses.

Lee Tien, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights advocacy group, said the town's use of Google Earth is "probably" legal because the images aren't "particularly revealing of intimate activities" and officials used them to answer a simple yes or no question: Pool or no pool?

Tien said just because a practice is legal, however, that doesn't make it good policy. "It seems like there are less creepy ways of doing this type of thing," Tien said.

A Google representative said she didn't know of any specific example of Google Earth being used elsewhere as it has been in Riverhead, and did not respond specifically to whether the company had any concerns about how the town used the service.

It's not uncommon for local governments to use satellite technology to survey structures for code compliance and to make sure value-boosting additions such as decks are reflected on property rolls. In the grip of economic calamity, Greece assembled satellite images of the country to identify undeclared pools, which can affect tax status there.

Barnes' use of Google Earth will also have an effect on taxes in Riverhead. Above-ground pools in town aren't taxed, but in-ground pools are. The annual impact varies by school district. Residents of the Shoreham-Wading River district are hit hardest, with a $700 tax boost for a large in-ground pool.

Across LI, interest varies

 

In Islip about a year ago, officials used an in-house satellite image service to investigate complaints from a resident about 40 unpermitted pools in town. After being contacted, about half of the pool owners came into compliance, said Islip spokeswoman Amy Basta. The others are either still in violation or pending in court.

East Hampton officials said they were intrigued by Riverhead's approach, and Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said he would like to give it a try. "It's a very shrewd move on his part," said Russell, referring to Barnes.

Larger communities, with more parcels and permits to check, expressed greater reluctance. Hempstead - which has about 240,000 households, compared to a population of about 30,000 in Riverhead and an even smaller population in Southold - prefers to catch violators the old-fashioned way.

"We are complaint-driven and we find that to be an effective way of dealing with compliance," Hempstead spokesman Mike Deery said.

With Mike Amon, Zeke Miller and Jennifer Maloney

WHAT'S REQUIRED

 

All backyard pools installed in the Town of Riverhead are required to have permits. That includes in-ground and above-ground pools that hold 18 inches of water, which is stricter than state law that sets a 24-inch threshold.

The pools and surrounding area must comply with town and state regulations governing fencing, security, and access from a home.

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Since 2006, the town has required installation of pool alarms that go off if someone falls into the water.

WHO'S RESPONSIBLE

 

Homeowners are responsible for making sure that pools built on their properties are properly permitted and meet all zoning and safety regulations.

In practice, pool companies will often handle the permit paperwork, which can involve engineering documents and site plans. Companies have expertise in these areas.

Before choosing a pool company, check the Nassau or Suffolk consumer affairs offices and contact your town to make sure the company is in fact filing the required paperwork. The Nassau consumer affairs office can be reached at 516-571-2600. Suffolk's consumer affairs office can be reached at 631-853-4600.

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