Local news

Aerial photos stir up debate

Pierce County program targets illegal buildings

TACOMA – Pierce County has identified more than 3,200 illegal garages and other structures under a controversial program that uses aerial photographs to spot buildings constructed without a permit.

Gordon Aleshire, assistant director of the county’s planning department, told a Pierce County Council committee Monday that the program has prompted hundreds of property owners to seek amnesty for their illegal buildings. And it has generated more than $107,000 in revenue for the county as property owners seek building permits they should have obtained in the first place.

But council members remain critical of the program, which some local residents see as a Big Brother-style high-tech surveillance program.

Spokane County is embarking on a similar aerial surveillance program, which county commissioners approved in February. Spokane County Assessor Ralph Baker argued that the $560,000, six-year contract for aerial photos would help his office cope with staff and budget cuts, since it would allow appraisers to evaluate homes and businesses without visiting them in many cases.

The Pierce County planning department launched its “building amnesty” program in October. Under that program, the county compares aerial photographs taken in 2005 and 2008 to identify structures built without a permit.

Property owners can avoid penalties by applying for amnesty and seeking the building permits and inspections they should have obtained when they built the structure.

According to the program’s latest report:

•The planning department has identified 3,209 structures without a permit so far this year. Nearly all of those were accessory buildings such as garages or sheds. Still, the department found 18 “primary structures” – houses or other significant buildings – built illegally.

•Through April, the department had accepted 525 amnesty applications. It also has received 201 building permit applications through the program.

•So far the amnesty program has generated $107,500 in revenue from permits.

Aleshire said it’s on track to meet its $310,000 revenue target this year.

Planning department officials say the program is designed to ensure public safety, not make money. They say buildings that did not get a county inspection might be unsafe.

County officials cite tragedies such as the 2001 collapse of a substandard deck that killed a Pacific Lutheran University student. And they say using aerial photographs is a cost-effective way to find illegal structures.

But some residents call the aerial photographs an invasion of privacy.

And council members say resources devoted to the program could be better used elsewhere.



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