Local privacy concerns persist as SB 1449 defines statewide drone rules

SB 1449 sets new statewide guidelines for unmanned aircraft usages similar to the one pictured here. (File photo)

SB 1449 sets statewide guidelines for unmanned aircraft usages. (File photo)

Municipal leaders at the Town of Paradise Valley and the city of Scottsdale say SB 1449 has stripped them of their ability to regulate unmanned aircraft flying above their jurisdictions — at least for the time being.

But officials at both municipalities say they are continuing to look at the new legislation signed into law on May 11 by Gov. Doug Ducey and expected to go into effect this August. They are looking to see what, if any, local provisions cold be developed to quell fears of privacy and public safety.

The new laws are meant to help fuel the idea of a “shared economy” championed by Gov. Ducey — which local leaders say is well and fine — but ties the hands of municipal regulations to address privacy concerns expressed by local residents, particularly in the Town of Paradise Valley and portions of Scottsdale.

SB 1449 was crafted by Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, while Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, fought to remove privacy provisions from the legislation saying no one is ensured privacy in the outside world — including one’s backyard, published news reports state.

While the term “drone” has been embedded within the broadcast nomenclature, the true definition of the word suggests a completely autonomous aircraft with programmable GPS waypoints, according to remote-controlled aircraft enthusiasts.

The devices are used for a variety of purposes. Real estate agents use them to obtain aerial photographs of top-tier properties. In the public sector, unmanned aircraft are often used for surveillance purposes in municipalities such as Phoenix.

In places like Paradise Valley and north Scottsdale, photography and video shot by unmanned aircraft are becoming a staple of selling homes in the luxury real estate game.

The new law makes it a crime to interfere with police and fire operations and also makes it unlawful to photograph or film sensitive locations such as nuclear power plants. In addition, SB 1449 requires all Arizona municipalities with more than one park to allow unmanned aircraft operations.

A change in plans

While the Town of Paradise Valley had enacted an ordinance meant to regulate unmanned aircraft, the city of Scottsdale has taken a wait-and-see approach. Paradise Valley’s rules and regulations are now meaningless, officials say.

“From a city perspective, Scottsdale does not have any specific ordinances relating to drones,” said Kelly Corsette, a spokesman for the city of Scottsdale.

“In light of the new legislation, however, city staff is reviewing the topic and will likely make recommendations to the city council in the near future regarding ordinance changes about operating non-commercial drones in city parks and the preserve.”

What those proposed regulations could be is not known at this time.

Scottsdale Airport officials published their own guidelines for “drone usage” in October 2015, but say so far, drones have not posed any concern for airport operations.

“As drones have increased in popularity, we figured many people would be seeking information on drones and possibly looking to the airport for information,” said Scottsdale Airport spokeswoman Sarah Ferrara in a May 24 statement.

A ProtoX nano-sized quadcopter.

A ProtoX nano-sized quadcopter. (File photo)

“The city created a web page as a resource for drone operators to review guidelines, tips and FAA information to fly drones safely and responsibly. Aviation staff isn’t aware of any issues to airport operations.”

All airspace — from the ground up — is regulated by the Federal Aviation Association, which is a division of the federal Transportation Department.

The FAA has regulations that apply to the operation of all aircraft, whether manned or unmanned, and regardless of the altitude at which the aircraft is operating, officials say. FAA officials say all commercial remote-controlled pilots ought to have authorization for what they are flying.

FAA West Division Public Affairs Manager Ian Gregor points out his organization is in the process of creating and updating federal laws as they pertain to unmanned aircraft.

“Last December, we issued guidance to help local communities develop drone laws that do not impinge on the FAA’s jurisdiction over the nation’s civilian airspace,” he said in a May 17 statement.

“We expect to finalize our small UAS rule this spring,” he said. “In a nutshell, the rule will allow for routine commercial drone operations and will mostly eliminate the need for people to get case-by-case approvals to fly drones for commercial purposes.”

The FAA has also created a rule-making committee to examine how certain drones can be safely flown over people, according to Mr. Gregor.

Where privacy is up in the air

Paradise Valley Mayor Michael Collins wrote a letter to the governor on May 2 questioning the new law and its refusal to respect a person’s privacy.

Michael Collins

Michael Collins

“We continue to respectfully disagree with Rep. Farnsworth on privacy,” he said in his letter addressed to Gov. Ducey.

“Paradise Valley residents are political, sports, entertainment and business leaders. In many cases, the only privacy our residents have is in the comfort of their own backyards. Under SB 1449 drones may be used to hover and film or photograph residents in their own backyards during private family events unless they are in a state of undress or engaged in a sexual act. This is not resolved under trespass statutes, as trespass is defined as ‘on or in’ the property.”

Paradise Valley Town Manager Kevin Burke says SB 1449 takes the municipality out of the drone-regulation business.

“I would tell you that our issue of privacy and safety were absolutely ignored and rejected,” Mr. Burke said in a May 17 phone interview.

“I think our frustration is we would place more of the blame on the House (of Representatives). Sen. Kavanagh and the industry lobbyists were at least working with cities and towns and other stakeholder groups — that seemed to go by the wayside in the House.”

Beyond privacy issues, Mayor Collins contends the new legislation may impact public safety.

“One recent report of a drone hovering approximately 20 feet above the Lincoln and Tatum intersection brings to light the potential risk that such a distraction creates for our drivers and residents,” he said.

“Under SB 1449, not only are we prohibited from addressing low-altitude flying and hover over arterials, but we also retain full liability in the event of a resulting incident within our rights of way. SB 1449 in its final form resolves one issue, but creates a myriad of unintended consequences.”

Independent Newsmedia Arizona Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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