Drone usage has likely been on the minds of local governments since 2016, when the popular travel website Matador Network released a video from a low-flying drone that caused a herd of elk to break into a run on the Valley Floor. Not only is harassment of wildlife a crime, the Matador video appeared to have been shot in early summer, during calving season, and showed young elk attempting to run with the herd.
Such incidents — along with the explosive growth in drone usage — persuaded Mountain Village Town Attorney James Mahoney to monitor the status of drone regulations by local governments. He noted that airspace is a federal matter governed by the FAA, which regulates the operation and registration of drones.
As Mahoney wrote in an Oct. 10 memo to Mountain Village Town Council, “A decision was handed down by a U.S. district court in Singer V. City of Newton, which struck down a municipal ordinance regulating drone usage. In that case there was language that indicated there was room for municipalities to regulate drones if done so in a narrow field.”
Though the feds oversee aviation aspects of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), towns can regulate their function and issue ordinances governing UAS operators who harass wildlife, invade people’s privacy or perform other illegal acts.
Mahoney introduced a proposed ordinance to Town Council at its Thursday meeting, saying, “Should we regulate drones? Can we regulate them? The question for us as a municipality is, what are the operators doing while flying drones? If they’re harassing wildlife or invading privacy, we can regulate them.”
Mountain Village Police Chief Chris Broady has received numerous drone complaints, many from homeowners surprised by a drone buzzing their property.
“Lot of real estate guys doing big houses use drones” to film all angles of the showcase house, Broady said. “If Realtors would just warn the neighbors in advance, it would probably be OK.”
Council member Jack Gilbride said, “I’m worried some crazy will fly a drone into a chairlift with four people on it. We could have a big problem.”
Cinematographer Brett Schreckengost, who pilots drones for all of Telluride Ski Resort’s aerial footage, did not attend Thursday’s meeting but told the Daily Planet afterward that UAS conflicts occur regularly.
“Drones have landed in trees on the ski mountain,” he said. “Telluride Helitrax has worried that someone flying a drone near their helipad at The Peaks could hit a tail rotor and kill people. Their helipad is a natural place to take off from, and they’ve had people fly drones from there when the helicopter is off flying.”
Three years ago, Schreckengost addressed Telluride Town Council about the unqualified drone pilots because he feared Telluride could follow the lead of Aspen and ban drones entirely.
“I suggested we get something adopted,” he said. “But these policies really just prevent you from taking off or landing on town property. They don’t have any teeth.”
Mountain Village Mayor Laila Benitez expressed a similar sentiment during the meeting and queried Mahoney about the $100 to $300 fines in his proposed UAS ordinance. Asked Benitez, “Is $300 enough of a deterrent?”
Mahoney replied that the fine limit is capped at $300 by state statute. Then Broady explained that if someone flew a drone into a chairlift causing injury, “they’d be subject to several other charges, not just illegal operation of a drone.”
Council voted unanimously to adopt Chapter 9.22 of the Mountain Village Municipal Code Concerning the Operation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems.
Schreckengost, who claims more than 2,000 hours of drone operation, has frequently filmed real estate promos in Mountain Village.
He said, “Privacy laws are privacy laws. You can call the cops” for other reasons than the simple appearance of a drone.
According to FAA regulations, all drone pilots in the U.S. must be at least 16 years old and must pass an aeronautical knowledge test obtain to obtain a remote pilot certificate. Commercial pilots, additionally, must obtain an FAA 107 license.
Mountain Village’s ordinance was modeled largely after Breckenridge’s. The gist, really, is to fly beneath 400 feet and don’t bother anyone or anything. For instance it rules against surveillance or “the gathering, without permission and in a manner that is offensive to a reasonable person, of visual images, physical impressions, sound recordings, data, or other information involving the private, personal, business, or familial activities of another person, business, or entity.”
Unmanned aerial systems keep filling skies across the country. The United States saw 2.5 million drones put to use in 2016 and the FAA expects that number to surge to 7 million by 2020.
Drones aren’t going away, and this fact has bothered seekers of solitude.
In a letter to the Daily Planet in 2015 Brian Herndon of Rico wrote, “Recently, I was … running the Cross Mountain Trail. When I began the final push to the top, I came across a family taking a drone from its hangar (backpack). When I reached the upper plateau, the solace that normally washes over me was instead replaced by the annoying whining of a drone, which was busy inspecting the sensitive terrain. Rather than lingering beneath Wilson Peak and absorbing its energy, I decided to return down the trail. As I quickly descended, I noticed that the drone was buzzing above me, which I found unacceptable.”
The drone’s camera then recorded Herndon flipping it the bird, he wrote.