Richland County has a history of using drone technology for mapping and emergency planning, but now staff are taking the technology to new fields – literally.

The county’s Geographic Information Systems division (GIS) and pilot Ben Jones are partnering with the county’s Conservation Division to fly small, unmanned aerial devices over rural areas to monitor conservation easements.

Using the county-owned drones, staff can efficiently monitor easements with minimal intrusion to property owners. County staff look for examples of non-compliant use or development on the property, as well as any encroachment or garbage dumping. The drones can also help determine the health of trees and waterways.

In the past, county staff had to check properties on foot. Some easements include hundreds of acres, lack trails or roads, or contain hard-to-navigate wetlands, making the process difficult.

“The images we receive from the drones have an overlay with clear property boundaries to assure thorough coverage,” said John McKenzie III, Richland County conservation program analyst. “Visiting and meeting with property owners is still crucial, and the drone is an additional method of documenting the status of easements.”

As an added benefit, the county will make aerial photos taken by the drones available to property owners.

Richland County uses conservation easements to protect natural areas such as farm and forestland, wildlife habitat, stream buffers and scenic open space, while preserving private ownership. Under terms of an easement, a landowner voluntarily relinquishes the right to subdivide their property but retains rights to farm, timber and recreate there.

“Conservation easements are important public–private arrangements that allow private property owners to keep using their property while also preserving it in a rural or natural state for future generations,” said Aric Jensen, assistant county administrator.

Easements can be found all over Richland County, but they are clustered in fast-developing areas, including Northeast Richland, Lower Richland and the county’s northwest.

The county encourages property owners to consider other properties that could be protected as part of its conservation easement program. To learn more, visit the county’s website or email McKenzie at [email protected]

Property owner Kenny Mullis, left, and Ben Jones, with Richland County’s Geographic Information Systems/Information Technology Division, launch a drone as part of a new County program.