The Town of Ramapo is literally taking to the skies to catch homeowners who may be skirting permit or zoning regulations or not reporting taxable property improvements.
Authorities say they will be using high resolution images shot from planes -- together with software that quickly compares images of the same location shot at different times -- to keep an eye on construction activity.
The images and much of the software involved will come from Pictometry, a company based in Rochester.
Rockland County used satellite images from the same source last year to catch 516 Rockland homeowners who were abusing the New York State School Tax Relief, or STAR, program. That project focused on individuals who were illegally taking STAR deductions on more than one home. The illegal deductions would have cost the county more than $600,000, officials said at the time.
"The whole idea is to ensure that we have the correct inventory on the houses," said Scott Shedler, the Ramapo town assessor. "Depending on what it is, if we pick up on an improvement, it may impact our assessments."
Rockland County has been conducting "fly overs" of properties for the past 20 years, to document address information for 911 calls and street-level details such as the precise location of fire hydrants, said Douglas Schuetz, the county's director of geographic information systems.
Shedler said the town now plans to compare images from a flyover in 2011 with similar images gathered in 2006.
"We're going to take the current information they just finished, then take the prior images and lay them over each other, so it shows any differences in the parcels," Shedler said. "That's a good amount of years, so it'll show a lot of changes in the inventory throughout the town's 30,000 parcels."
Shedler says penalties for those who have worked on their homes without permits haven't been discussed yet.
In the past, Pictometry's services have been popular with public safety sectors, including 911 dispatchers and emergency services. Around 1,200 counties across the U.S. -- about one-third of the nation's counties -- have been using the company's flyover imaging systems in recent years, said Justin Knight, Pictometry's district manager for New York and New England.
Only recently have municipalities like Ramapo kicked it up a notch, to use aerial images and related software for economic development, historical records, land use and public works planning, Knight said.
"The unique thing about Ramapo is they've taken an extra step in their project and implemented a validation component with Pictometry, which is actually going to create a more fair and equitable tax base," said Knight. "It's essentially going to help make sure the data that they have for the assessment portion is more accurate."
The company has 73 planes and employs 80 pilots to fly more than 34,000 hours each year, Knight said.
"It's not about paying more taxes. It's about everyone paying their fair share," Knight said. "An assessor's job is to be fair and equitable and Pictometry has helped them do that."
Ramapo is the first municipality in the Hudson Valley to latch onto the technology, but towns in other locales throughout the state -- including Suffolk County on Long Island and upstate Oswego County -- have been using the software.
"It's becoming more prevalent in New York because it's a great way to get more accurate data and a great way to save money on manpower and resources," Knight said. "Most assessor's offices only have one or two people to manage huge expanses. How could you do this with just a couple of people? We're seeing a shift to this because this is really the only way to do more with less."
Within the next two months, Shedler expects to receive the data from the county to begin the process.
"We're not really sure what we're going to find," Shedler said. "We're just going to see the mismatches. I don't know what we're going to end up with."
Shedler said they'll be on the lookout for homes that have added a pool, deck or shed in the backyard, as well as any signs of illegal subdivisions, which have proved to be an ever-growing issue in the county.
"It's going to be an extremely tedious job," Shedler said. "You have to analyze each individual change . . . It's an aggressive project but in the end it will achieve equitable assessment."