By Cassandra Reinhart, Special to the Independent
Galen Wallenberg started building model fiberglass gliders and launching them into the updrafts from the South Laguna foothills at age 10.
“I started in Boy Scouts, right here at Troop 35,” said Wallenberg, now 40. “I would just go up into the hills and fly my gliders.”
Wallenberg joined a handful of commercially licensed drone pilots this past Tuesday, March 7, who successfully pressed the Laguna Beach City Council to do more research before imposing restrictions on drone operators.
The unmanned aircrafts equipped with video and still cameras are flown from the ground by remote control. Their popularity among tourists and professionals alike allow pictures of the coastline, beaches and events from an aerial vantage point.
“This is a classic example of a technology that gets developed and there are a lot of good things about it, but there are some negative things,” said council member Rob Zur Schmiede. “The law has to catch up.”
The ordinance under consideration on Tuesday would prohibit drone flights over the city’s most popular attractions, Main Beach, Heisler Park and Treasure Island Park, as well as “critical infrastructure” such as City Hall, police, fire and marine safety stations.
The proposal initiated with the police department, which is seeing an escalating number of drone complaints from residents, said Police Chief Laura Farinella.
“I have literally sat with people an hour in my conference room just so they can vent to me about how frustrated they are,” Farinella told the council. “There is nothing we can do,” she said, besides asking the offending neighbor to fly elsewhere. The department lacks the authority to cite drone operators, she said.
Airspace is subject to Federal Aviation Administration jurisdiction. According to the FAA’s current safety guidelines, drones less than 55 lbs. do not need to be registered and are permitted to fly under 400 feet provided they are never flown over groups of people, near other aircraft or over stadiums or sporting events.
More than 20 states approved drone laws this year, and major cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami approved tough restrictions on no-fly zones and the use of drones to snoop in neighborhoods.
Farinella based her recommendations on guidance from the FAA, the National League of Cities, and the Grand Jury of Orange County, which recently recommended cities adopt drone ownership and operation ordinances by March.
The city needs rules that allow people to use drones, but also protects the safety and privacy of citizens, Farinella said.
Joe Cockrell, who described himself as one of the few commercially licensed FAA drone pilots in town, testified that the proposed ordinance will unfairly restrict those who use drones responsibly to the benefit of the city. Real estate agencies, film makers and other commercial businesses that regularly use drone footage for business could be adversely affected, he said.
“We share your concerns about the people flying like idiots. They make the rest of us look bad,” Cockrell said.
“We love highlighting this community but one of the unintended consequences you are not thinking about with the way it is worded right now is the negative impact on the ability to market tourism in this community.”
Farinella said some residents are concerned that drones could be casing their homes for burglaries. Other drone complaints are about noise, safety concerns over crashes on private property and privacy, she said.
“A resident came down and she was very upset, she lives near Table Rock right on the cliffs, and she was in her shower which has full glass, with a drone right next to her window that has a camera affixed to it,” Farinella said. “She has asked people to stop it, but they want to get that perspective of the ocean from a high vantage point, and that happens to be right next to her residence.”
The council asked the commercial drone operators in attendance to self-organize into a group of two or three to meet with Mayor Pro Tem Kelly Boyd and Farinella to provide feedback on how to rework an ordinance proposal.
Farinella is open to a compromise.
“If you want to launch it from the water side and fly it over the water, we are good with that,” Farinella said. “We understand that you want to see it from that perspective, but over crowded beaches, next to people’s residences, that’s not what we are looking for.”
The article, “Drone Operators Protest No-Fly Zones” in the March 10 edition, contained an error. The story incorrectly reported the minimum weight of registration requirements by the FAA. The current safety guidelines require registration of drones weighing more than .55 lbs.