Prairie Village wrestling with whether and how to regulate drone usage in city

Jay Senter - December 5, 2017 9:45 am

Drone_Prairie_Mission_hills

Two months after a drone flew over the Prairie Village Jazz Festival hanging a banner seeking to connect a potential love interest with a missed connection from a few years ago, the city is taking a hard look at what regulations, if any, it should place on unmanned aircraft systems in the city.

City attorney David Waters of Lathrop Gage on Monday presented the council with a preliminary overview of what types of regulations other cities have put in place, what regulations would pass muster under federal law, and what city regulations already on the books may be applicable to drone use.

The drone that flew the banner over the Prairie Village Jazz Festival. Submitted photo
The drone that flew the banner over the Prairie Village Jazz Festival. Submitted photo

Waters noted that the Federal Aviation Administration’s guidelines on drone use, which provide considerable leeway for people who operate the vehicles as a hobby, would supersede any city level regulations. As such, city level restrictions on flight altitude or flight path might not pass a judge’s scrutiny if an issue were brought to court.

At present, Mission Hills is only northeast Johnson County city to have adopted an ordinance restricting the use of drones within its limits. The Mission Hills ordinance prohibits drones from being flown over public property and limits all flights within the city to an altitude of 400 feet. Waters said, under his reading of applicable case law, those restrictions may not pass court muster.

But, he said, cities likely have the ability to restrict drone use as it pertains to criminal statutes that are already on its books.

“A city could probably regulate drones in a way that would be related to what you might say were a city’s traditional police powers,” Water said. “Things like protecting privacy, stopping reckless behavior.”

Councilwoman Jori Nelson noted that an update to Kansas’s state statute on stalking passed in 2016 made using a drone to harass someone illegal. She asked Waters to look into whether that law or sample regulations produced by the National League of Cities could be used to help craft a privacy-protecting ordinance in Prairie Village. Nelson said she had experienced an uncomfortable encounter with a drone at her home, when an unidentified aerial vehicle flew into her backyard. The vehicle turned out to be operated by a neighbor, but at the time she had no idea who was piloting it.

“It came down low enough that I was totally creeped out,” she said. “I didn’t know where it came from.”

Still, the council was divided on the best approach to take to address the potential threat to privacy that drones might pose. Councilman Eric Mikkelson said he wanted to see what laws already on the city’s books could be applied to drone use before looking into creating new laws. Councilwoman Courtney McFadden said she would be more comfortable waiting to see what other cities across the country pass before writing a new ordinance that could “invite legal action.”

Mikkelson offered the contrary view, saying he thought the city needed to address the issue sooner than later.

“I do think we need to get out ahead of this, because like with driverless cars, drones are coming,” Mikkelson said. “And there’s a lot of them coming. And I want to be proactively ready for it.”

The council directed Waters to conduct more research and bring back a recommendation to the council at a future meeting on how the city should proceed.

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