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GIS case evokes memories of beach lawsuit

Stephen Whitaker, the computer consultant who convinced the state Freedom of Information Commission last week that the town erred in blocking his access to its geographic information system, likened his quest to that of out-of-towners who wanted to visit Greenwich beaches in the past.

He called the town’s geographic information system the Greenwich beach of the information superhighway, causing some members of the agency to snicker. The five-member Freedom of Information Commission arbitrates public records disputes between citizens and state and municipal agencies.

Whitaker’s assessment of the case, which has caught the eye of Freedom of Information advocates from as far away as Missouri, might not be that far-fetched after all.

Greenwich took a similar path in defending its residents-only beach-access policy after a Stamford attorney challenged it. The state Supreme Court ultimately declared the policy unconstitutional last year and said it violated outsiders’ First Amendment rights.

First Selectman Richard Bergstresser vowed last week to challenge the FOI commission’s decision and said he would pursue the fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary to keep the aerial photos and maps sought by Whitaker from being copied in total.

The computer consultant hopes to use the database to acquire property assessment information and tax records and sell that data in a useful format to homeowners. The town has sold photos and maps of individual properties at nominal fees for nearly two years. GIS cost $3 million in taxpayer money to build in 1997.

“It’s our intellectual property,” said Bergstresser, who also plans to enlist the help of state legislators to amend Connecticut’s FOI laws to account for technological advances such as GIS. “It’s a betwixt and between thing. I really think it’s the legislators who have to do something.”

Davis also questioned one of the chief arguments used by town leaders in trying to block the material’s release. They claimed that Greenwich could be more susceptible to invasions of privacy and terrorism given the large number of high-profile figures who live here.

Board of Estimate and Taxation Chairman Peter Tesei voiced similar reservations about trying to lead a legislative campaign to amend FOI laws.

The town also tried to invoke its copyright privileges in its argument before the commission last week, which Davis said is subject to interpretation.

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