Eye in the sky: County entering into second aerial photo contract for assessment

October 16, 2013
Image description
A Pictometry International Corp. image shows the Washington County government complex
Image description
A Pictometry image showing the Washington County government complex

As part of Washington County’s property reassessment, the commissioners are poised to enter into a contract today for a second photographic fly-over to gather data.

Pictometry International Corp. of Rochester, N.Y., will again be taking to the skies, this time at a cost to taxpayers of $83,626.

The images are known as orthophotography because they are geometrically corrected, or orthorectified, to a uniform scale to remove distortion. Orthophotography is also used to create a geographic information system.

“We take both ortho, or vertical photography, and oblique photography, which means at an angle,” said Steve Benner, district manager for Pennsylvania and New Jersey at Pictometry International Corp. in State College, Centre County.

According to the proposed contract, the firm has divided Washington County into 943 squares known as “tiles” or community sectors. Once the images are online, 100 users are to have the ability to view them at the same time.

The county’s 2009 pictometry contract with the same firm was for $146,665, but the second round is necessary because of a change in specifications.

Bradley Boni, Washington County chief assessor, said the county is not contracting for “super-high resolution in this fly-over,” but he called the images “a really helpful tool, not for valuation purposes, but for discovery.”

Aerial photography can determine if structures have been built without being placed on tax rolls, or to detect any violations in the state’s Clean and Green program that gives a tax break to agricultural properties. Aerial images would be used to place a value on property only if a property owner denied data collectors access.

Pictometry images can be used for other purposes. For example, planners can plot the best site for a new building or road, and they can be used by emergency management officials when coordinating response to a disaster.

Greene County entered into a $53,000 contract with the same firm in 2010, and the corporation has done work in several other Pennsylvania counties.

The fly-overs must be completed before trees are in full leaf, because foliage can obscure buildings, and not when land or structures are covered by snow.

“Once the snow has melted in the spring, we fly on every good weather day that we can because it’s a relatively narrow window,” Benner said. “In 2012, for example, aerial photography season ended a full month early.”

Green grass, while visually appealing, is not a necessary component of the images, although it appears in Washington County’s 2009 photo series.

Benner said the aerial survey plane is likely to fly out of Washington County Airport.

The first survey was done in the aftermath of the Washington and McGuffey school districts filing suit in January 2008, asking Washington County Court to order the commissioners to embark on a property tax reassessment throughout the county. Through a series of appeals, the reassessment was delayed until this year, when Commission Chairman Larry Maggi said the board had run out of options. Tyler Technologies Inc. of Moraine, Ohio, near Dayton, the low bidder for the countywide reassessment at $6.9 million, began sending data collectors into the field last month. They are now working in Washington’s Seventh Ward. Property owners are to be notified of their new assessments in 2016, with new tax bills arriving for the 2017 tax year.

The county’s last reassessment, completed in 1979, took effect in 1981.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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