St. Johns County property appraisers have turned to unmanned aerial vehicles to streamline the assessment and permitting process in one of the nation’s fastest developing areas.
Advances in drone technology are helping Florida's St. Johns County more efficiently keep up with the pace of growth in one of the fastest developing areas of the U.S.
With the number of taxable structures in the county increasing by the hundreds each week, the appraiser's office has turned to unmanned flights to better assess properties through aerial photography. The method has several benefits, including ensuring compliance of existing homes, keeping tabs on permitted lots that may come online soon and more easily adding those new properties to the tax rolls.
Last year alone, the appraiser's office added 4,300 new residential properties to its logs.
In order to meet the growing demands on his office, St. Johns County Property Appraiser Eddie Creamer said one drone — a Mavic Pro — was purchased two years ago for about $1,000, plus the cost of software. The department now also has an eBee drone, a much larger model used to scan larger areas, such as agricultural parcels.
The appraiser's office has a staff of four that it calls its "Drone Squad." The group — most of whom are both trained pilots and field assessors — schedules flights for about two or three times a week. Another staffer works to upload the aerial captures into a software program that overlays new images over old ones, "based on geo-references and stitches them together," said Jason Fuller, geographical information systems analyst.
The software allows the county to properly measure the perimeter of a property and see what additions have been made, such as a pool or deck, that could change the value — all from a computer. In many cases, field assessors follow up with a physical inspection.
Drone photography also helps Creamer's office ensure ongoing construction matches plans originally submitted to the county.
Creamer said St. Johns is one of just two property assessment offices in the state so far that uses drones. The other is Santa Rosa.
One of the big advantages of drones is they can survey large swaths of land, which represents cost savings in manpower and labor.
"Previously, we used to get aerial photography once every two years," Creamer said. "Our county is growing so fast that 24 months is too long a time, and this really allows us to leverage our reach. ... Instead of sending 10 appraisers out, they can see all this at their desktop."
The software does not reveal any private information and is strictly used to help appraise a property, Creamer said.
In addition, all flights are logged for FAA inspection.
Small drones' ability to hover quietly at heights usually between 300 and 400 feet is another advantage. Helicopters and planes cannot hover at such close proximity.
Recent flyovers have included Nocatee, the new Embassy Suites in St. Augustine Beach and the Durbin Pavilion shopping center.
Drones have become essential in assessing property damage, especially after natural disasters such as hurricanes Matthew and Irma, when damage to rooftops and other structural elements could be seen from above.
St. Johns County's Drone Squad was also called in to provide a snapshot of the destruction in the Florida Panhandle following Hurricane Michael last fall.
"We did 19 miles of beach in two days," Creamer said.
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