Civic leaders of Arlington are looking to keep drones from harassing residents. But state law may keep the effort from taking off.
The seven-member city council planned to vote June 6 to pass regulations on drone use in the wake of complaints about the devices. City recorder Pam Rosenbalm said the council discussed changes to the new ordinance and pushed the vote to the July 11 meeting.
The Gilliam County Sheriff’s Office provides law enforcement for the town in the Columbia River Gorge, and sheriff’s Lt. Jon Terland said reports of drones causing problems in Arlington began in January.
“There were several complaints of drones following kids home from school,” he said.
That also came out during the April 4 city council meeting, when Superintendent Kevin Hunking reported the school year was going well, according to meeting minutes, but “there appears to be a problem” with drones following students going home or between the town’s two schools.
Terland said the complaints continued into May of drones “generally harassing people,” including from a woman who reported one hovered outside the second-story window of her home.
No one knew who was flying the devices, Terland said, and by the time a deputy responded, the drones would be long gone. He said the Arlington City Council was looking for a way to curb the misbehavior.
Terland said he advised the council on its regulations and called people across the nation to find how local governments dealt with drones. The thrust, he said, is enforcing what happens on the ground — the launching and landing.
Arlington aims to let drone operators take off, fly and land on their own property but ban flying drones below 400 feet over private property or over schools, public parks or sporting events without permission of the property owner. Operating drones “in a manner that harasses, annoys or assaults a person” would be against the local law, according to the proposal, which includes following someone more than 100 feet.
The first violation carries a $100 fine and subsequent violations $500. Using a drone to harass and annoy someone packs a penalty of $2,000.
“It’s basically just a tool for use to try to quell some of that stuff,” Terland said.
Police and commercial use of drone would be OK. Insitu Inc., a subsidiary of the Boeing Co., makes unmanned aerial systems and operates in Arlington. And enforcement “will be completely complaint driven,” Terland said. The small department of six officers is not going to patrol for drones but instead respond to and investigate complaints.
The local law, however, faces a steep climb over state law. Oregon Revised Statute 837.385 specifies the state Legislature has the authority to regulate the ownership or operation of unmanned aircraft systems and local governments “may not enact an ordinance or resolution that regulates the ownership or operation of unmanned aircraft systems or otherwise engage in the regulation of the ownership or operation of unmanned aircraft systems.”
Ruben Cleaveland of Hood River is the attorney for Arlington and drafted the ordinance for the city council. Thursday morning he said he was not familiar with the state law and needed to dig into it. That afternoon he said it looked like the state law would void anything Arlington passed.
“At this point I think were just going to pull it,” Cleaveland said.
Still, drones are following people in Arlington, he said, and Mayor Jeffery Bufton has public safety concerns about the problem. The attorney also said the use of drones is moving faster than the law.
Bufton did not respond to requests for an interview.
The League of Oregon Cities operates an inquiry service for cities. League spokesman Kevin Toon said the service has not received a lot of calls about drones, but Arlington could be on the front edge of the issue. He also said state and federal law are evolving on drones.
Even if Arlington can find a way to regulate drones, that won’t make it easier to catch the operators. Terland said the camera technology allows controllers to fly drones well beyond line of sight and spot cops coming from far off.