Taxed from above – counties use aerial photography to spy on homeowners

Posted by Humphrey Cheung

Cape May County (NJ) – Aerial and satellite photography regularly helps our troops fight on the battlefield, but the same technology is now being used by cash-strapped counties to assess taxes.  In Cape May County, New Jersey, county tax assessors are using photos to look for illegal additions to properties and to fine farmers for not farming enough.  The county says the photos are a fantastic tool, but some people say the government has no business peeking into our backyards.

Cape May County is using photos from Pictometry International Corporation.  The pictures, which are taken from satellites and planes at least 5000 feet up, are taken at oblique angles and are not the traditional straight-down shots you typically see in satellite photos.  The advantage of such photos is that you can use what’s called photogeometry to measure out how tall a building is or the length of the driveway – it’s basically a trigonometry problem where some lengths and angles are already known.

Pictometry claims their photos are taken from 12 different viewpoints and this gives governments a unique perspective on almost any property. Apparently this also works especially well in seeing what is happing in your backyard.

Most counties and cities in the United States have a permitting system for property owners.  Owners must apply for a permit and submit to inspection before they want to modify their building.  Originally this system was implemented to protect home owners from doing a dangerous addition, like a balcony that can’t support people or a railing that is too low, but like many things this turned into a big tax revenue generator.  Additionally, home owners often fight mountains of paperwork in applying for a building permit.

Some people throw caution to the wind and just start building without government approval and this is where Pictometry comes into play.  County tax assessors peer over photos and will access fines if they see undocumented additions like fences, porches and rooms.  The system can also be used to spy on farmers who aren’t farming enough.  The county says the technology ensures that people pay their “fair share” of taxes, but some lawmakers aren’t convinced.

Van Drew, a state Democratic representative from Cumberland, Atlantic, says the system works like big brother and told the pressofatlanticcity.com, “we’re not supposed to be spying on people.”  Lois Finifter, a tax administrator for nearby Atlantic County, said the aerial and satellite photos could be relied on too much and added that much confusion could be avoided with a simple physical visit … by a living, breathing and hopefully intelligent human being.