Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – Humboldt County’s planning staff will soon be eyeing cannabis cultivation sites on their computer screens, accessing satellite imagery that is more precise and more up to date than standard sources like Google Earth.
At its April 17 meeting, the county’s Board of Supervisors approved spending $200,000 to enlist the services of the Planet Labs, Inc. satellite imagery company.
The company provides regularly updated, high resolution satellite images that are formatted and stored on an Internet-based platform.
Planning Director John Ford said the imagery will also be useful for visual inspection of sites proposed for development projects.
He said that manual inspections, particularly in rural areas, are time-consuming due to travel. According to a written staff report, use of the imagery in place of staff inspections will save the county $135,000 a year.
But Supervisor Estelle Fennell said she’s received emails from those who have questions and concerns about use of satellite photography. Ford acknowledged concerns over potential use of the technology for general code enforcement surveillance but he said that’s “absolutely” not what his department intends to do.
When the Planning and Building Department took on code enforcement responsibilities, supervisors “made it very clear that we continue to be complaint-driven” and “frankly, we don’t have time to sit and look at development within the county to determine if there’s code enforcement issues going on,” Ford said.
His department will only be proactive as directed by the board, which has prioritized cannabis regulation enforcement and abatement of abandoned vehicles and code-violating junkyards.
Ford added the satellite imagery can be shared with the state’s cannabis regulation agencies, although no formal sharing agreements have been drafted yet.
The imagery will assist with cannabis permitting in addition to enabling speedier and more thorough enforcement. Fennell said some people have expressed privacy concerns but many want enhanced enforcement.
“It really is important to use these tools for code enforcement specifically against the black market illegal cultivation,” she continued. “I think there is quite a great degree of support for that.”
Since public funding is involved, the imagery will be generally available upon request. Board Chair Ryan Sundberg highlighted the importance of consistent implementation of the public disclosure and asked staff to draft a written policy on it.
“I can see this going sideways if we don’t have a solid policy,” he said.
Supervisors directed planning staff to devise a policy for public access to the imagery and approved the supplemental budget request for the satellite imagery contract. Supervisor Mike Wilson was absent.