Feds shooting down local drone bans
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Feds shooting down local drone bans

How grounded is Pima County rule on R/C aircraft?

FAA officials told state and local authorities last week that only the federal government has the ability to regulate remote-controlled aircraft. This week, Pima County reiterated a ban on drones in public parks — a policy they later said isn't a violation of the federal regulations.

Last Thursday, the top lawyer for the Federal Aviation Administration released a statement addressing local regulation of drones and model planes, noting that Congress has given the agency the sole authority to regulate aircraft of all types.

"Substantial air safety issues are raised when state or local governments attempt to regulate the operation or flight of aircraft," said the fact sheet from the FAA's Office of the Chief Counsel.

A "patchwork quilt" of differing laws across jurisdictions "could severely limit the flexibility of FAA in controlling the airspace and flight patterns, and ensuring safety and an efficient air traffic flow," the agency said.

Tuesday, county officials repeated what they said was a long-standing ban on drones in parks and county-owned open spaces.

Despite other local outlets reporting that the drone ban was new, radio-controlled aircraft, including quadcopters and other drones, have been prohibited in county parks and open space areas for years, county officials said. The ban was "mostly due to safety and noise complaints," said spokeswoman Kate Harrison.

'We're not regulating the air, we're regulating the ground and access to the ground' — Evans

Responding to TucsonSentinel.com inquiries about a conflict with federal authority, county spokesman Mark Evans carefully parsed the policy.

"We are not regulating the airspace but the lands that the activity is being done on/from and the public safety in the park from the on-the-ground generated activity," he said Wednesday. "The activity being regulated is the activity occurring on the physical park property."

In other words, the county claims it can forbid someone from operating a drone while standing in a park, but not from flying a drone over a park while standing outside it.

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The FAA statement recommended that local authorities consult with the feds when considering operational bans of what are known as "unmanned aircraft systems."

County officials didn't do so before again proclaiming the ban this week, Evans said.

The FAA did acknowledge that some "laws traditionally related to state and local police power" are "generally not subject to federal regulation." Examples given by the agency include requiring police to obtain a warrant before using a drone for surveillance, outlawing using drones for voyeurism, and prohibiting using UAS for hunting or fishing.

Federal officials declined to specifically weigh in on Pima County's policies.

"We will let the fact sheet speak for itself," said FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer on Wednesday.

The feds have seen an increase in both interactions between piloted airplanes and unmanned aircraft, and local jurisdictions across the country enacting UAS regulations that may overstep into areas of federal purview.

Any legal challenges to those local restrictions would be the task of citizens, as the feds haven't taken on filing suits against states and local governments over the issue.

Noise and safety

"We've heard that individuals have been flying drones at very low elevations over the heads of other park users and at park-based events," said Kerry Baldwin, Natural Resources division manager for the county. "One group was flying multiple drones over the overlook at Gates Pass when the afternoon sunset crowd had gathered, with little regard to any potential safety issues or the loud and shrill sound generated by the small aircraft engines."

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Baldwin said the Pima County Natural Resources, Parks & Recreation Department is getting numerous noise complaints from patrons of the quieter parks such as Tucson Mountain Park and Agua Caliente Park.

The FAA's statement reminded local officials that regulations regarding drone safety and noise were federal responsibilities. The agency cited Arizona v. U.S., the Supreme Court case over SB 1070, in the fact sheet, noting that the high court found that "where Congress occupies an entire field ... even complimentary state regulation is impermissible."

"We also have reports of individuals using drones in ways that harasses wildlife, which is a violation of state and federal law," Baldwin said in a Tuesday news release put out to remind the public of the county ban.

Federal natural resource agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and the National Park Service have similar restrictions on drone use.

A new federal law requires all private drone owners to sign up with the Federal Aviation Administration Unmanned Aircraft System registry by Feb. 19.

But on Tuesday, Baldwin warned that drones are banned at county parks whether they are registered or not.

For those not looking for a court case, there are several private clubs that operate airstrips for model aircraft, including drones. The city of Tucson allows model aircraft to be flown at Christopher Columbus Park on North Silverbell Road, while Oro Valley allows drone owners with insurance to fly north of the sports fields at Naranja Park.

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1 comment on this story

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75 comments
Dec 23, 2015, 4:29 pm
-1 +1

Pima County aught to know about the Federal Government’s authority, look how they have the sole authority to regulate illegal immigration.

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Pima County parks rules

1.120 Aircraft, parachutes and hang gliders

It shall be unlawful to operate any aircraft of any nature or parachute or hang glide on County Park property except in areas designated for such use by the Commission, or in an emergency.

FAA fact sheet on unmanned aircraft systems

State and local restrictions affecting UAS operations should be consistent with the extensive federal statutory and regulatory framework pertaining to control of the airspace, flight management and efficiency, air traffic control, aviation safety, navigational facilities, and the regulation of aircraft noise at its source.