Prairie Village advances idea of regulating drone use in the city

Photo credit Thoroughly Reviewed.

The Prairie Village governing body will consider a city-level ordinance that would regulate drone usage in the city — but some city councilmembers are skeptical of the need for a new law.

On a 6-4 vote Tuesday, the council directed staff to bring a draft ordinance crafted in conjunction with city attorneys back to the governing body for a formal vote at a later date. At present, Mission Hills is the only northeast Johnson County city with an ordinance on the books restricting drone usage.

The question of whether and how to regulate drone usage in Prairie Village has been an active issue since a drone of unknown origin flew over the crowd at the 2017 Jazz Fest. That drone turned out to be piloted by a commercial operator, who was hired by a woman to hang a banner in hopes of finding a lost love connection.

But the incident spooked some at city hall, who worried about the threat drones could pose over crowds and to the individual privacy of residents.

The draft ordinance presented to the council this week would prohibit flying a drone for “recreational or hobby purposes” in the following circumstances:

  • over city airspace
  • over an individual or open-air event venue where more than 100 people are gathered without permission from the organizers
  • over property the operator does not own without the owner’s consent
  • for the purposes of conducting surveillance
  • while the operator is under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • using a drone that is equipped with firearms or other weapons

Several councilmembers raised questions about the definitions used in the draft ordinance as well as how the ordinance would be enforced and what penalties would be put in place for violations. Ward 5 Councilmember Dan Runion was especially leery of adding a new law to the city books, noting that a state statute on stalking already explicitly prohibits the usage of drones to harass someone. And Ward 3 Councilmember Andrew Wang wondered whether there had been enough of a problem with drones in the city to merit the passage of a new ordinance.

But Mayor Eric Mikkelson spoke strongly in favor of the idea of putting a drone ordinance on the books.

“If somebody is going to launch a drone with a camera on it a few feet from someone’s house, looking in their windows, that’s not something we want happening in Prairie Village,” Mikkelson said. “And right now what I’m hearing is that we do not have any clear local control to prevent that from happening.”

Mikkelson renewed the call he made in 2017 for the city to get out ahead of the issue.

“There are more drones coming,” Mikkelson said. “Whatever the amount of drone activity we’ve had in the past, I think we can all agree it’s going to be more in the future. I’d like to see us be proactive on this issue.”

Councilmembers Chad Andrew Herring, Jori Nelson, Tucker Poling, Andrew Wang, Sheila Myers, and Terrence Gallagher voted in favor of moving the ordinance forward. Councilmembers Serena Schermoly, Brooke Morehead, Dan Runion and Courtney McFadden voted against it. Councilmembers Ron Nelson and Ted Odell were absent.

Drone use caused friction during mayoral race

The issue of drone usage became personal for Mikkelson this past fall when Schermoly’s mayoral campaign flew a drone over his home to get an overhead photo for use in a video about the home design guidelines the council was deliberating last year.

Serena Schermoly’s campaign flew a drone over now-Mayor Eric Mikkelson’s home this past fall for use in a campaign video criticizing his stance in support of new home design regulations.

On Tuesday, Schermoly raised concerns about the effect an ordinance might have on commercial operators and likened their use to the vehicles that take street-level photographs for use on sites like Google Maps.

Mikkelson took issue with that analogy, saying drones posed a much more significant threat to invasion of privacy.

“Those are on streets and public sidewalks,” Mikkelson said of Google’s camera cars. “I think if you took a Google camera car or remote vehicle with a camera onto somebody’s yard and into their backyard and extended it into a window with their camera, I think everybody would have a problem with that.”

During the Shawnee Mission Post mayoral candidate forum ahead of the November election, Mikkelson noted that he was not pleased Schermoly’s campaign had flown a drone over his house.

“Not a very comfortable thing to have to go through for a public-service unpaid position,” Mikkelson said at the time.