It was an easy sell: Cops, firefighters and county planners zipping down streets and across backyards with a simple click of the mouse.
From Disneyland's Matterhorn to the sluggish El Toro Y, the notion of photographing every square mile of Orange County with high-resolution aerial images was eagerly embraced by county leaders.
They even endorsed the concept that they could recoup the cost of the entire project by selling photos of neighborhoods, cul-de-sacs and industrial complexes on the Internet.
But then reality knocked.
Hundreds of residents phoned and e-mailed the county, complaining that the ambitious photo shoot smacked of Big Brother on some sort of paparazzi romp through the backyards of 2.7 million county residents.
"We dropped the ball on this issue when we approved it," concedes Supervisor Todd Spitzer. "There were questions I should have asked and failed to."
Indeed, the entire two-year, $184,000 aerial shoot is on hold while the county reviews privacy and legal issues. At issue is whether the county should contract with Rochester, N.Y.-based Pictometry International LLC, and if so, should the pictures be hawked for $15 to $25 on the county's Web site.
Elizabeth Schroeder, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, believes county bureaucrats were too eager to snatch the latest in high-tech tools without weighing the social downside, such as basic privacy.
"I found it rather shocking that they can have technology that can go under the eaves and in your backyards," Schroeder said. "And if you can sell this information to private parties, you can easily sell it to burglars.
"All of us," she said, "have things in our backyard that we don't want anyone else to see."
Supervisors acknowledged they weren't ready for the hundreds of phones calls and e-mails that poured in after the board unanimously approved the project Sept. 19.
What makes Pictometry different from scores of other aerial services is, rather than direct overhead views, pictures are taken at an angle, which, combined with the company's software, allows users to zoom in on neighborhoods and measure height, width and length of any feature in an image, including gullies, buildings, trees, poles and roads.
Under terms of the contract, the company would take 60,000 photographs of county land from an airplane at about 4,000 feet. The images would be stored in a county database and sold to other cities and governmental agencies, including police and fire.
Though supervisors were assured the project was fully researched by county staff, Supervisor Jim Silva said it's evident that questions on privacy rights, public access on the Internet and the county's liability "still need to be addressed."
Board Chairman Chuck Smith, a retired civil engineer, said he continues to believe in the concept and thinks it will be a money saver for county workers who deal with zoning and planning matters.
"We've asked for a legal review and although we've given the go-ahead to do it, [the board] can limit it from being distributed on the Internet," Smith said.
For planning purposes, the aerial imagery is perfect, said Brian F. Fitzpatrick, West Coast general manager of the firm. Rather than having a developer show off a beautiful artist's rendering of a new shopping plaza, the digital software allows a planner to test the developer's claims by immediately seeing what the site will look like, he said.
Police officers would have the ability to view structures and barriers to tactical operations on a computer screen in a dispatcher's office, in essence looking an area over until police get to the scene, said sheriff's Capt. Ron Wilkerson, who viewed a product demonstration.
"It's an interim measure until a helicopter arrives," he said. "The resolution, I thought, was outstanding and at least it allows us to have something that we can bring up [on a screen] to get an idea of the physical layout."
As to the concern with privacy issues, Fitzpatrick is matter-of-fact. "There is no law that says you can't take an aerial picture or sell it. It's on e-commerce right now."
The county spent months reviewing the company and its products, said county officials who sent a two-person research team to New York last spring. In addition, officials said a survey of 1,200 residents did not reveal any distaste for selling the photographs on the Internet.
Vicki Stewart, manager for fiscal programs services, said the survey showed 70% thought it was a great idea, 26% were neutral on the matter, and only 4% didn't like the idea.
Stewart said she understood why residents would be sensitive to a proposal involving high-tech cameras but suggested that, unlike satellite imagery as portrayed in Hollywood movies, "this is one shot in time and it gets upgraded every two years."