Courthouse Journal Blog

The Courthouse Journal is the official weekly newsletter of the Washington Association of County Officials. The Courthouse Journal Blog is a collection of publications relevant to WACO members, their staff, and others. *This blog is not updated on a schedule.

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Jan 22

Aerial Imagery – A Bird’s Eye View

Posted on January 22, 2024 at 2:45 PM by Cella Hyde

Using a cellphone app, Spokane County Assessor Tom Konis watched as his aerial imagery contractor’s plane flew and captured images above tens of thousands of acres destroyed by wildfires. Just two weeks after the fires, these images provided his office with what they needed to process 781 destroyed property claims within six weeks and get devastated property owners and their families the relief they needed.

This legislative session, HB 1990 and its companion SB 5954 propose creation of an aerial imagery program for the purpose of providing coordinated high-quality aerial imagery services to state agencies, local governments, special purpose districts, and tribal governments. This proposal was brought to the WACO membership by the County Assessors Association (WSACA) and embraced as clearly beneficial to a broad range of county operations.  “We brought it forward as an equity issue”, WSACA Legislative Chair Thurston County Auditor Steven Drew told the House State Government Committee last week. “All can benefit from this technology, but far fewer can afford it”, Drew explained.

State, local, and tribal governments use aerial imagery in a myriad of ways. Forestry and forest management, agriculture, transportation and utility infrastructure, shoreline and salmon habitat management, economic development and planning, emergency management and law enforcement are just a few.

The current system is not only inequitable, its inefficient in that each municipality must contract on their own for services, achieving no economy of scale. Assessor Drew gives an example: “Our aerial imagery contractor in Thurston County has to fly into Pierce County just to turn around but the contract is only for photos in Thurston County. That’s really inefficient.” The state has a limited cooperative that enhances the buying power of local government, but it doesn’t meet the technical specifications consumers need.
 2024 Aerial Imagery CHJ - 1

It’s a fascinating technology growing in use and sophistication. Aircraft carrying optical camera systems can record two different types of aerial photos: vertical and oblique. Figure 1 depicts the difference, which makes the utility of these different images clearer. Resolution is another key feature of the imaging that relates to technology and cost. Imagery is often referred to in terms of inches; representing the number of inches on the ground captured in a single pixel. The smaller the number, the greater the detail in the pixels. Figure 2 depicts the difference between a 12-inch and 3-inch image. A third key to useful imagery is frequency of collection. Every two years is the standard so users can compare successive flights to track changes like new buildings or stream migration. Common features to contracts for aerial imagery include on-demand flights in cases of emergency, like Assessor Konis required following wildfires.  

2024 Aerial Imagery CHJ - 2

In 2022 the legislature asked the Washington State Department of Commerce to conduct a study on use and need for aerial imagery and recommendations for best means of providing needed services cost efficiently. The study surveyed 435 users of aerial imagery from 34 counties, 60 municipalities, 16 special purpose districts, 6 school districts, 26 tribal governments and numerous state agencies.  The study concluded with a strong recommendation for funding and implementation of a coordinated high-quality statewide aerial imagery program. They reported that, conservatively, efficiencies gained by a coordinated, statewide aerial imagery system would have an aggregate benefit of $159 million per year in Washington State.  The full report may be found here.

In exploring the capabilities of aerial imagery, it quickly becomes evident why WACO members benefit from this proposal. For County Assessors aerial imagery is key to efficient assessment of property values. For Sheriffs, it can inform incident command, crime mapping, emergency services routing and 911 location verification. For Coroners and first responders, it can improve disaster assessment and mitigation and more efficient disaster response. Greater efficiency and cost savings benefits all aspects of county official operations.

HB 1990 was successfully passed out of the House State Government and Tribal Relations committee on January 19th and will now likely head to a House fiscal committee. WACO will continue to push for passage of this important bill.