County Legislature approves restrictions on drone use

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NEW CITY – The Rockland County Legislature broadly voted on Tuesday to approve a new set of county regulations which aim to prevent the illegal use of aerial drones.

The law, which was subject to two public hearings and a re-write before it reached the body for a final vote, would require drone operators to obtain the permission of property owners who own land over which the small aircraft fly.

The law would also restrict the use of drones on public lands unless a municipality gives permission to fliers. Flight of drones above other sensitive governmental buildings such as the Rockland County Jail and Sheriff’s complex, houses of worship, courts or sewer facilities is prohibited.

Legislator Jay Hood, who sponsored the resolution, argued that in spite of the new regulations, the law was not terribly restrictive. At the same time, Hood argued the safety risks and abuse potential for drones was great enough to warrant proactive action.

Specifically, Hood pointed to a 2014 incident when a drone was used to smuggle contraband into a South Carolina correctional facility and concerns over their use by peeping toms.

“You can literally focus in on someone’s back deck and see what they’re having for dinner,” Hood said.

Local hobbyists have objected to the law, arguing the wording is vague enough that even technically simple RC aircraft might violate the law. The language of the resolution defines a drone as “an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can fly under the control of a remote pilot or via a geographical positions system (GPS) guided autopilot mechanism.”

Alex Robbins, one of the speakers at the second and final public hearing on the law, opposed the law on the grounds that it fails to separate different grades of unmanned vehicles. He also argued concerns about spying were largely unfounded given that it was impractical and improbable that lawbreakers might use drones to spy on others.

Other legislators were similarly skeptical of the law’s necessity. Legislator Lon Hofstein agreed more specificity was needed to ensure there would be no unintended effect on people flying in areas like apartment complexes or school fields.

Hofstein also expressed concerns that the law might require a costly, unnecessary municipal permit process to implement.

“Now we’ve put another layer of government on,” Hofstein said.

Legislator Joseph Meyers pointed to the lack of a major outcry against drones or local use for illegal purposes and questioned whether a problem existed at all.

“I’m just not sure that it’s quite right yet and I’m just not sure it’s a problem in Rockland County,” Meyers said.

In response, Hood defended the broad language, stating that there was “no way to draw language that worked” to specify more advanced drones. He explained, however, that his intention was not to affect law-abiding hobbyists and that he did not anticipate a surge in citations.

Ultimately, most legislators supported the resolution. Legislators Meyers, Patrick Moroney and Douglas Jobson voted nay. In spite of his concerns, Hofstein opted to support the bill while Legislator Christopher Carey was absent.

Owing to growing concerns about privacy, Drones have been in the crosshairs of regulators in most states. A bill approved by both houses of the New Jersey State Legislature would have imposed strict warrant requirements on their use by law enforcement, including provisions for surveillance data to be deleted within 14 days unless a crime had been committed, but the bill was pocket vetoed by Governor Chris Christie. The law was re-introduced in May and now awaits Senate approval.

Federal regulators have also introduced guidelines on private drone use, stipulating limits on altitude, speed, safety stipulations, commercial uses and locations where drones may legally fly.

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