Drone controls: Has Breckenridge succeeded where other towns have failed?
Breckenridge drone law
A revised ordinance passed Nov. 28 by Breckenridge Town Council on second reading prohibits:
• Reckless or careless operation
• Equipping a drone with a firearm or deadly weapon
• Interfering with law enforcement, firefighting or other government emergency operations
• Using a drone for illegal surveillance or voyeurism
• Harassing or annoying wildlife
• Launching, landing or operating a drone from or on town-owned property.
Source: Town of Breckenridge
An industry expert and commercial drone pilot is praising Breckenridge town officials in passing a new law regulating unmanned aircraft systems that the expert and town staff both say could withstand a legal challenge, unlike one recently struck down by a federal judge in Newton, Massachusetts.
“I think Breckenridge’s ordinance is great compromise,” said Vic Moss via email, referring to the new drone law passed Nov. 28 by Breckenridge Town Council on second reading.
Moss is a commercial drone pilot based on the Front Range who’s become a leader in the field of drone law through repeated conversations with Federal Aviation Administration officials and working on a number of UAS cases across the country, as a friend of the pilots and as an expert witness.
“And the fact that (Breckenridge officials) wanted to work with (drone pilots) in crafting their ordinance was awesome on their part, and greatly appreciated by all in the UAS community,” he continued. “I wish all cities and states were as eager to listen to us as the town of Breckenridge.”
Moss also testified in the Newton case sparked by an FAA-certified drone pilot filing suit against Newton, a suburb of Boston, for a drone law passed in December 2016 that’s been described as “the most restrictive to date.”
A federal judge ruled on Sept. 21 that Newton officials went too far by trying to exercise control over the city’s air space and pre-empt guidelines set by the FAA, which stands as the governing body over all U.S. air space.
Most egregiously, the city had banned all flights under 400 feet, in addition to any flights over private or public property without explicit permission from the landowner. Another provision in the now-defunct law required pilots to register their drones with the city and pay a small fee, and that too was out of bounds, the judge ruled.
The timing of the ruling came at an opportune moment for Breckenridge, just as the Colorado ski town was trying to write its own local drone ordinance.
Town officials took the first step to get a handle on drones in scenic Breckenridge last August, a move that was sparked by a July wildfire that burned 84 acres outside of town and at least two drones which were reportedly flying dangerously close to the blaze, impeding firefighting efforts.
The first proposed draft of Breckenridge’s drone law drew significant blowback from a handful of local pilots, including five who spoke out against the proposal at town council’s Aug. 22 meeting. One of those pilots was Moss.
Some of the other pilots who spoke up offered bad information, and they argued the FAA’s rules were more than enough, not recognizing Breckenridge police had no jurisdiction to enforce those federal laws.
Meanwhile, Moss encouraged the town to pump the brakes on a few provisions in the original draft, including any language that would have prevented drone flights over specific areas, such as Cucumber Gulch or the town’s golf course.
Heeding some of those concerns, Breckenridge officials put their plan in a holding pattern while they invited more input from those pilots and took down their information.
“I actually had another meeting with (assistant town manager) Shannon Haynes and the town attorney (Tim Berry) about five weeks after the first reading,” Moss said in the email. “After that, they sent me their newest code, and it was pretty good.”
In the end, town staff said Moss was extremely helpful finding ways to achieve the town’s desires by keeping the law’s attention fixed on the ground.
While the town couldn’t enact any regulations preventing drone flights over any specific air space — such as the wildlife-rich Cucumber Gulch — they made use of an FAA provision that makes the harassment of wildlife illegal.
Additionally, the town has also made it illegal to launch, land or operate a drone from town-owned property without a permit, and that idea came from Moss too. Because the FAA requires pilots to maintain a clear line of sight with their drones at all times during a flight, the new law makes it much more difficult to fly over town property than it otherwise would be by limiting where the operator can be.
Moss previously said Breckenridge could set an example with its drone law for other municipalities across the nation, as they also look to enact laws regulating drones.
Based on Moss’s reaction to the law Breckenridge has passed, it appears the town might have hit that target.
“Much of the specific language has been removed and the current ordinance focuses on reckless and careless and dangerous behavior,” assistant town manager Shannon Haynes told council members before they voted on the law at its first reading on Nov. 11.
Regardless if any other municipalities follow suit, Moss is characterizing the town’s efforts as “a great example of how the UAS community and local politicians can easily work together to craft reasonable legislation.”
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