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GIS is Flying in New York State-Entire State to be Covered

The State is preparing highly accurate Adirondack and Catskill GIS for zoning compliance

By Carol and Peter LaGrasse

New York State is going to do a GIS fly-over of the entire state during 2001 and 2002. "The perhaps the most ambitious state orthoimagery program in the country," according to the New York State Office for Technology's Center for Geographic Information. The first "Annual Lot" extends over seventeen counties from the tip of Long Island, through the Hudson Valley and Catskills to the Northern reaches of the Capitol District, including Warren and Washington Counties. A few of the counties have already been photographed during a pilot program.

During a thirty-day period in early spring, six planes will photograph the 2001 Annual Lot while the light snow cover is still on the ground before leafing out begins. The project this spring will move quickly. After subtracting for cloud cover, the fleet of planes will have only twelve days to do the actual photography.

Next year the 2002 Annual Lot will produce digital "orthoimagery" for nineteen counties in the western portion of New York State.

The project is known as the "Statewide Digital Orthoimagery Program." Each yearly phase will cover approximately one-quarter of the state. The State will produce the GIS to an accuracy of 1 pixel in urban areas, and to a lower order of accuracy, 2 pixels, in rural areas, except that in the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserves a higher order of accuracy will be created. One pixel denotes a resolution of 1 ft Ground Sample Distance (GSD). The degree of resolution is achieved by flying at a lower elevation over the area. The photos will generally be readable to three or four feet, and can be enhanced to make outlines clearer.

The State envisions that local and state government agencies will make wide use of this advanced GIS program.

The GIS data will be immediately available and will be accessible over the Internet, at "New York State's Interactive Gateway" (, which made its debut in March 2000. In his address to a workshop at the annual convention of the New York State Association of Towns at the New York Hilton on February 19, a spokesman for New York State explained that officials will not have to possess an in-house GIS system to avail themselves of the information. In fact, according to the newsletter of the State GIS Coordination Program, "New York State provided the first internet site in the world to offer comprehensive and completely free public access for both viewing and downloading digital orthoimagery." Over two million maps were generated on request by users during the first ten months of the program.

The GIS information for the Adirondack and Catskill regions will not be available immediately. It is being prepared to a higher order of accuracy to be used for the purpose of zoning compliance, according to the spokesman at the Association of Towns conference.

GIS, or geographic information systems, is a system of digitalization of map information by the use of computers so that information from many sources can be overlain and compared visually and statistically. To make GIS possible, maps and other geographically based information such as aerial photographs must be coordinate-based. Over recent years, many types of geographically based information have been converted to a mutually compatible coordinate-based system. Such data have come to include U.S. Geological Survey maps, most local assessment records, many official wetland maps, and a multitude of other types of information from government and some private sources.

According to the State's Center for Geographic Information, which is located in Albany, a joint project of the U.S. Geological Survey and the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) created the state's first coverage of digital "orthophotos," producing 1:12,000 scale orthophotos at a resolution of 1 meter. High-altitude, color infrared 1:40,000 scale photos were taken during the spring of 1994 and 1995. According to the Center, " has become apparent that GIS users across the state, especially at the local government level, would derive substantially greater benefits if the state were to produce higher resolution digital orthoimagery on a more timely basis."

The new GIS product has many enticing, powerful and intrusive functions. For example, according to the Center, map controls have evolved from the static buttons of the current application to dynamic controls capable of inspecting and manipulating data layers, displaying an image associated with a map feature, measuring distances between points, zooming to the original extent of the map window, and other enticing features. By clicking on the appropriate link within a deeper information page feature, the user can call up photographic views of the selected point on the map from other angles and at other scales. In addition, property can be viewed by entering the street address, according to the State spokesperson addressing the Association of Towns conference.

Entirely missing in all of the excited official discussion of the potential of GIS to aid local government is any concern about fundamental rights,—which government officials are sworn to protect. The digital maps are presented as unparalleled tools for not only planning for such considerations as transportation needs and economic development, but also for zoning and building code compliance and criminal justice. Environmental applications have been a major GIS use since the early 1970's, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began making use of the Landsat satellite photos. Considering the refinement reached by the present generation of GIS surveillance, where are the privacy protections guaranteed to United States citizens in the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, as well as in the New York State Constitution?


- Carol and Peter LaGrasse
February 2001

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