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Texas Town Hopes to Enforce Drone Restrictions

As the Kerrville, Texas, City Council writes the first city regulations for drones, some contend their proposals are more restrictive than those of the FAA.

(TNS) -- Kerrville, Texas, council members are flying into uncharted territory as they write the first city regulations for drones.

On the table is a ban in city parks, except by permitted operations.

Remote-controlled aerial vehicles are used for business, recreation and even by law enforcement. The Federal Aviation Administration regulates use of unmanned aerial systems — UAS — which are commonly referred to as drones.

Resident Aaron Yates owns a drone to take photos recreationally and for events. He said FAA requirements include restricting flight to 400 feet and below, and UAS are not allowed to fly near airports without first reporting and receiving approval from the airport.

He said Texas laws on drones are even more restrictive.

According to the FAA, 45 states considered some form of drone regulation in 2015.

“State law says I can fly in a public place like a park and take photos of people that are in the public place, but I can’t fly over someone else’s property and take pictures without their permission,” Yates said.

Kerrville city staff presented an ordinance amendment to city council last week that would restrict the use of drones in municipal parks. Ashlea Boyle, assistant director of parks and recreation, said people now will be required to receive a permit from the city before flying drones in parks.

“With the recent innovations in technology, drones are becoming more and more popular, and we’re beginning to see them rise in the parks and all across the country,” Boyle said at a recent city council meeting. “The FAA has set regulations regarding licensing, but this does not cover municipal property.”

Boyle said other Texas cities, including Parker and Rosenberg, have prohibited drones within park property. Austin also has some city regulation on drones, although they dropped their citywide ban on drones in April 2015.

The permits in Kerrville would be free and limited to park property. Boyle said there would be some qualifications for permits.

“Allowed uses will consist of project surveying and inspection, scientific research, community marketing, etc.,” Boyle said. “Recreational usage will not be permitted except for those already covered under an existing license agreement such as the RC radio flyers.”

The FAA reported in December the number of incidents involving unauthorized use of drones increased in the last year, from pilots reporting about 238 sightings of unsafe use in all of 2014 compared to 780 spotted January through August 2015. The city did not cite any incidents with drones, and Yates did not know of any in the area. Yates said he had mixed feelings about the proposed ordinance, considering the regulations the nation and state already have in place.

“If people were responsible from the beginning, we wouldn’t have to have these permits, but there are some people who are not going to use them responsibly,” Yates said. “I don’t know if it’s really going to stop people, though. How does the enforcement work and is it going to be practical?”

Boyle said there would be some qualifications for permits.

Darren McCarthy, director of Rosenberg Parks and Recreation, said in an email that his city passed an ordinance to prohibit the use of drones in city parks except by law enforcement and city employees. He said the ordinance hasn’t caused problems.

“(Drones) became an issue last year during our 4th of July celebration,” McCarthy said in the email. “Folks were flying drones too close to our fireworks show. Now that the ordinance is in place, law enforcement will have the tool necessary to cite the individuals this year if they happen to fly their drones too close to the fireworks again.”

In December, the FAA started requiring people to register drones weighing more than half a pound. Yates said the online registration process is simple and costs $5. In the first month, the FAA reported about 300,000 registrations and is working to establish online registration for commercial businesses wanting to use drones. Boyle said FAA certification would be required before a person could receive a city permit.

Failure to register may result in civil penalties up to $27,500, and criminal penalties may include fines of up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment up to three years.

Tim Adams, president of the Kerrville RC Flyers club, said drones under half a pound don’t have to be registered with the FAA, and he asked city council members if the city ordinance would take that into consideration.

Boyle said all remote-controlled aerial devices, including model airplanes, would be included in the ordinance.

Adams said he agreed with the proposed ordinance, but he asked if city staff would work to inform the public about the ordinance if it is approved.

“I can relate the full scale to the club, but there’s a lot of people around the city who aren’t members of our clubs and who may not know about the ordinance,” Adams told council members.

Kristine Day, deputy city manager, said signs would be posted in the parks, and the city would send out an informational piece detailing the permitting process.

Yates said if the city moves forward with the ordinance, he would hope that groups in the community such as the RC Flyers would be consulted.

“It seems there hasn’t been a big public cry for an ordinance like this,” Yates said. “Most of the laws that they’ve passed on the state, and even on a national level, have been pretty sensible. I think groups like the RC Flyers need to be consulted if the city wants to place an ordinance in the parks.”

A second reading of the ordinance is required before the amendment can be made. The reading will take place at the city council meeting March 22.

©2016 the Kerrville Daily Times (Kerrville, Texas) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.