As drones gain popularity among hobbyists and commercial operators, the Spokane Valley parks department is grappling with how to balance their use with public safety and privacy.
The parks department proposed banning drones and model aircraft from parks as part of an overall update to its regulations, which was discussed at an Aug. 21 City Council meeting.
“We’ve experienced quite an increase in the act of drones in our parks. We’ve had some near misses,” said Mike Stone, Spokane Valley parks and recreation director. “We get people out there that are racing their drones 4 and 5 feet above the ground and here comes a young person on a bicycle, and the potential for a conflict is extremely challenging.”
Stone said residents also voiced concerns about drones hovering over playgrounds and splashpads.
“(Drones) have their place,” he said. “But I’m not sure they have their place in our parks.”
The proposal to ban drones from city parks is drawing concern from operators who say the proposed ordinance could supersede regulations put forth by the Federal Aviation Administration.
FAA regulations state people can fly registered drones within a maximum altitude of 400 feet above ground if they maintain visibility of the aircraft and refrain from flying over people, stadiums or within a 5-mile radius of an airport unless they receive permission from the airport.
Robert Rees, owner of Spokane-based Rees Aerials LLC. who specializes in airborne media production, said Spokane Valley’s regulations could place a burden on commercial drone operators.
“I find it extremely troubling that a government entity would immediately rush to such extremes without considering the full impact it would have on people that utilize these machines,” he said.
Monty Lomazzi, chapter organizer for Spokane FPV, a drone-racing group, said the organization hopes the city will consider alternatives, such as allowing drones in a specific park or with a special permit.
“I understand if the city, as a general rule, allows drones in parks through official events or going through an event-hosting program to rent out the park,” he said. “That’s what we do with the schools. They’ve been perfectly OK with that. If (the city) allows that, cool, I’m game.”
Lomazzi said group members spend about 80 to 100 hours building their drones, which they fly in “first-person view” – or from the perspective of the drone – by wearing goggles to view live streaming footage from a camera attached to the aircraft.
“There’s a lot of technical knowledge that goes into building these,” he said. “There’s a big difference between someone who has bought a toy that flies and someone who is flying an aircraft. So, we’re pretty responsible about flying them.”
Lomazzi said the Spokane FPV group hosted an event at Valley Mission Park two years ago and continues to hold events throughout the Inland Northwest.
“We’ve been hosting events every summer and every month in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, and I’ve had zero safety problems,” he said. “There hasn’t been one injury of any sort.”
The city of Spokane updated its park regulations in May, allowing drones and other hobbyist aircraft but only under the condition they aren’t operated in “a manner that is dangerous to persons or property.”
Spokane Valley City Councilman Arne Woodard said he’s open to hearing concerns from drone operators before voting on the park regulations.
“I’ll listen and make judgments based on rationale and obvious liability,” he said. “I think if there’s a club that has a particular concern, they ought to come testify at a council meeting.”
Woodard said the city is attempting to address potential liability issues and reduce damage to park facilities, but there may be an option available for drone users similar to the radio-controlled-car-racing facility at Sullivan Park.
“Maybe we can find a place that could work with drones. We still want people to have fun in the parks, but we want everyone to be safe,” he said. “If you have something going on that’s a benefit to the citizens, let’s see if we can work with you on it.”
Stone, the parks and recreation director, said the proposed rules and regulations are to ensure parks are properly managed and safe for residents.
“I think we did a good job back in 2003 to jump-start some rules and regulations, but we obviously didn’t cover everything,” he said. “As time goes on, technology has changed and we are challenged on a daily basis in the parks department to understand what people are wanting to do, trying to do and shouldn’t be doing.”
Spokane Valley Councilwoman Brandi Peetz said she’s also open to hearing citizen concerns about new park regulations.
“I hope that we can come together and form something that’s suitable for everybody,” she said. “It’s tough because drones are new, and people don’t have a whole lot of information on them. As long as we’re having open conversations, for me, that’s the main goal here.”
Spokane Valley Mayor Rod Higgins said the council will take all concerns and comments into consideration.
“We need to be educated as well, so we aren’t prohibiting something that shouldn’t be prohibited,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s going to apply to everybody, and you are going to have those who know how to operate the drones and those who don’t. You have to be able to protect the public. A flying object is a flying object.”
City officials will vote on the proposed park regulations at an Oct. 9 council meeting.
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