How an Army aerial photo expert helped SF couple park in driveway again after threat of $1.5K fine

ByRenee Koury KGO logo
Friday, July 15, 2022
How SF couple got their driveway back after threat of $1,500 fine
ABC7 viewers sent in historic photos to help the San Francisco couple prove their driveway was, in fact, meant for cars.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- It was the parking story that went 'round the world. A San Francisco couple was threatened with a $1,500 fine for parking in their own driveway, as they have for nearly four decades. 7 On Your Side's story about their plight went viral and viewers stepped up to help them get their driveway back. But how?

Viewers from all over the world responded to this couple's story. Many could not believe a city would threaten a huge penalty for parking in their own driveway. Many offered to help prove it was a historic use - and then - the proof they needed came from an amazing source.

"It just seems wrong."

Judy and Ed Craine had been parking in the carpad of their San Francisco cottage for 36 years... when suddenly the Planning Department said it's illegal.

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They had to remove the car or face a huge penalty: $1,542 plus $250 for every day they parked there.

"I said what, that's crazy," Ed said.

So they quickly pulled the car out - but it made no sense.

"Why are you taking away something that has great utility?" Ed asked. "To all of a sudden to be told you can't use something that we could use for years. It's, it's startling."

The city planning code makes it illegal to park in the setback of a home to prevent front yards from becoming unsightly parking lots.

However, if they could prove cars were parked there before the law was passed in 1978, they might get a waiver.

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"We could be grandfathered in. If we show them a historical photo that showed a car... or a horse-drawn buggy in the carport," Judy said.

"I did a number of online searches, Ed said, "checked historical resources,."

But finding a historic photo of their exact driveway seemed impossible. Until Ed found an aerial photo from 1938. Zooming in showed their exact house. Ed saw a black shape he figured must be a car, pulling into what he figured must be the driveway.


"Here's our house..." Ed said. "This black blob looks like it's pulling into our house... to me it's very compelling that was a car."

But city planners said the photo was too fuzzy - not clear evidence.

However, after ABC 7 aired the story, the couple was flooded with offers of help ( as well as commentary about way-out San Francisco) .

And then, a gift from the sky.

"I happened to be watching Channel Seven, Michael Finney, and I saw this couple who was in a really tough spot..." said David Ruiz. He manages the aerial photo collection at Pacific Aerial Surveys of Novato in Marin County, which has millions of photos from its flights across the Bay Area dating all the way back to 1928. Ruiz saw our story and knew he could help Ed and Judy.

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"I just simply went through our flight database and found numerous flights and was able to pull out some photography," he said.

Ruiz used mapping coordinates to locate their house among maps in the company database. He found two aerial photos of what appears to be a car in their driveway; the clearest was a photo from 1958.

Ruiz said the company flew over most of the Bay Area once every three years including this neighborhood. "The question is, is there a car in the driveway at the moment we fly over,'' Ruiz said. Most people were at work with their cars when Pacific Aerial Services was flying overhead, reducing the chances of catching a car in the driveway.

He did find two of them -- 1958 and 1955. .

"So April 23, 1958,'' Ruiz said, pointing to an aerial photo taken with a film camera in a plane flying 6000 feet overhead. Ruiz said he's able to enhance the photos with 3-D imagery and other tools. He's trained to look for indicators it's a real vehicle, such as shadows, context and dimension.

"And here's the house in question, And right here is a nice car, parked right there."

He pointed to an image that looked like it could be a 1950s automobile. it was a snapshot in time, a view that went back in time. The viewer is transported to that moment in that time. "It definitely looks like a nice big American sedan, doesn't it?" Ruiz said.

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"This is all film-based. We had a plane flying overhead, it's flying at 6,000 feet, took this wonderful photo that you can enlarge," he said.

It is crystal clear to Ruiz - as it just so happens Ruiz is an expert trained during his Army career to analyze aerial images - especially cars.

"As an imagery analyst from the Army, one of my specialties is identifying vehicles," he said.

And so the black blob Ed Craine found? The planning department wouldn't accept it. But Ruiz says that blob was, indeed, a car.

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He showed 7 On Your Side a clearer copy of that photo.

"It verifies that this is a vehicle, that there's height... so I told them that there's no doubt in my mind as an expert that this is a vehicle and if they needed me to, to write a report or testify to that I could do that," Ruiz said.

The Craines showed the city that 1958 photo.

And it did the trick.

The city said it is now a legal parking space -- grandfathered in.

Ed and Judy, who did not want to go on camera, said: "We are delighted we are able to park in our driveway again."

Thanks in large part to David Ruiz.

"I'm glad it helped them out. They seemed like wonderful people that were just in a tough spot," he said.

Major help also came from a neighbor who rummaged through old boxes and found a 1972 photo showing a car in their driveway. Others in the neighborhood also got violation notices for parking in their driveways. All came from anonymous complaints. If that's you, let 7 On Your Side know about it.

Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.

Have a question for Michael and the 7 On Your Side team? Fill out the form HERE!

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