In 2015, La Plata County started conducting flyovers in an attempt to use aerial photography to better inspect homes and businesses for tax purposes, and by all accounts, it has worked, adding nearly $3.3 million in market value to the tax roll.
The La Plata County Assessor’s Office is state-mandated to discover, list and verify property and any improvements made on lands across the county, which influence property values that are re-evaluated every year of as Jan. 1.
But the old ways of doing things just weren’t working anymore, said County Assessor Carrie Woodson.
The Assessor’s Office appraisers spend nearly every day going out into the far reaches of a county nearly the size of Delaware, a strain on time and resources. Woodson estimated that one visit to a home in Allison, for instance, could cost the county nearly $100 for staff time and gas.
And, there’s no guarantee they’ll be let onto the property. Homeowners can say no, leaving assessors to evaluate homes and property from the road.
But technology, in recent years, has transformed the way assessors can evaluate properties. Montrose County, for example, discovered $1 million in previously unaccounted for property values in January and February using the enhanced aerial photography.
La Plata County, wanting to improve its own process, formed a partnership with other local agencies to enter a contract for three flyovers, every other year for six years, over the entire county, which offers an intimate look of properties. And, unlike Google Earth, the images have an exact time stamp, allowing assessors to see when changes happen on property.
“There’s a level of surety you can’t fight in court,” Woodson said. “Because that map tells us it’s right there, and we know exactly when it appeared or disappeared on a property.”
Home and property values are based, in part, on the size of a house, if there are any additional structures like barns or garages and how the land is being used.
But property owners don’t always obtain permits or report improvements to their land, which results in the county losing out on taxes.
During the first flyover in 2015, the aerial imagery discovered more than $1 million in missing value from unpermitted structures, Woodson said, mostly barns and other buildings used for agriculture.
Assessor’s Office appraisers still make field visits, but the flyovers are showing savings. Woodson said by cutting out 20 field days per year for each of the eight appraisers, or one field day a month per person, the county would save about $15,504 per year.
And, with better valuation comes an increase to county revenues. Woodson provided a rough estimate, about $10,000, which has come into the county as a result of the flyovers.
Woodson acknowledged there may be some “stigma” attached to flying over to inspect people’s property. But, she said her office is required by the state to have the best valuation information, and the maps aren’t used just by the Assessor’s Office.
“If this was just about the Assessor’s Office, maybe it’d feel a little more strange, but it’s not, it’s for everyone’s use,” she said. “And this is out in the open. I want people to know we’re doing it.”
Indeed, the aerial maps are a “vital tool” for emergency management, as well as search and rescue missions, said Butch Knowlton, director of La Plata County’s Office of Emergency Management.
The technology has helped hone in on flood plains, plan firefighting techniques and potential rockfall paths, to name a few. Knowlton said the enhanced maps also play a critical role in helping rescue people from the wilderness more quickly and efficiently.
“Aerial photography is very important for what we do in the emergency management world,” he said. “I use it constantly.”
La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith also said the maps are of great help for emergency situations, like planning evacuation routes during the 416 Fire last year. Also, deputies may use the maps when conducting crime investigations.
“It’s not a system we use every day, but it’s very helpful in emergency situations,” he said.
Don Short, GIS manager who does all of La Plata Electric Association’s mapping, said aerial imagery plays an increasing role in LPEA operations, especially to navigate to the co-op’s equipment.
“I can use the imagery to verify equipment and how it is connected to our system,” he said. “This year, we may get very high resolution images, through which we can identify more information sitting at the desk instead of driving out to the field. So we have been very fortunate to have been part of this collaboration with La Plata County.”
Lisa Daly, a spokeswoman for EagleView, the company that conducts the flyovers, said the entire county can be captured in less than a week’s time, however, the total flight time is dependent on the weather conditions. Planes fly up to 12,000 feet off the ground to capture ultra-high-resolution aerial imagery to get a detailed views of each property, she said.
“High-resolution aerial imagery is captured using a proprietary camera system installed in the floor of a fixed-wing aircraft,” Daily wrote in an email to The Durango Herald. “This camera system captures a ‘top-down’ orthogonal image in addition to an oblique directional view from all four cardinal angles – north, south, east and west. This imagery is then processed with supporting elevation data allowing customers to measure structures and features.”
The total cost for the three flyovers was about $163,000 – with about $53,000 contributed from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, about $12,600 from the city of Durango, $10,000 from La Plata Electric Association and $640 from the town of Bayfield.