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Riverhead stops using Google Earth for pool violations

Riverhead (July 27, 2010)

Riverhead (July 27, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Big Brother's eye in the sky over Riverhead Town has officially closed.

At a town board meeting Wednesday, council members voted to stop the practice of using Google Earth or similar satellite images to determine if residents have pools without permits.

The measure, introduced by council member George Gabrielsen, restricts the use of virtual global map and other overhead images "as the basis or foundation of prosecutions in areas not readily observable from public locations." It also blocks their use of "sweeps in place of field inspections and investigations without approval of the town board."

"Spygate is officially over," Gabrielsen said in an interview. Riverhead last month made national headlines after news stories about the practice raised questions about privacy and uninvited inspections.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said his administration sought to stop satellite image searches for all code violations shortly after taking office in January. The previous administration, he noted, "used it for sheds and decks. We ended 90 percent of it." Pools weren't immediately eliminated, he said, for public safety concerns.

Under the practice, Riverhead's Chief Building Inspector Leroy Barnes Jr. scanned properties on the Internet and identified those with pools.

He then compared the list to records of homes with pool permits. Violators were told to get the permit - around $300 - or face a hefty fine and penalties. To get a permit, pools must conform to safety codes.

But privacy concerns won the day. "It's a conservative board," Walter said. "There's no sense in keeping this . . . We will not be using Google Earth to find violations."

Not all residents supportthe town's decision to nix the overhead surveillance, however.

Brendan Bates, a Riverhead resident whose family pool was spotted in a sweep, said he believes it should continue. "If it saves a child's life, I don't understand the logic of not using something like this."

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