By Jason Starr
Where does wildlife habitat end and federally regulated airspace begin?
It’s a question trustees and staff members at the Winooski Valley Parks District are grappling with as a growing number of Vermonters seek open spaces to fly unmanned aerial vehicles — commonly called drones.
A group of drone users that coalesced online as The Northern New England Drone User Group began gathering to fly drones in a field at the park district’s Ethan Allen Homestead in Burlington two years ago.
The meetings caught the attention of district executive director Nick Warner, who has led an ongoing discussion at the district’s monthly board of trustees meetings about creating a drone policy.
The district owns and operates 18 parks in Chittenden County with support from seven member municipalities. Its board is comprised of one member from each city or town.
“Our hope is the district would adopt a common sense policy with some basic restrictions so people don’t operate near other [park users] and use designated areas within the district,” said Steve Mermelstein of South Burlington, a leader of the group. “We do regular events without complaint or incident. We’re just trying to have a framework and understanding.”
At the trustees’ most recent meeting in April, they denied the drone group’s request to use the homestead on May 7 for an International Drone Day celebration. The group instead held the event on private property at Bolton Valley ski area.
Park trustees argued the natural areas “should include the air space into the sky to protect migration patterns of birds,” according to November meeting minutes. Trustees are also concerned about drone noise.
But Warner has advised the trustees they may not have the authority to regulate airspace above the parks.
“We do not have a policy,” he said. “It’s an active discussion with our board. It is a rapidly evolving topic nationwide.”
Drone advocates have challenged municipal bans on drone use across the country, Mermelstein said, pointing to the Federal Aviation Administration authority to regulate all U.S. airspace.
Colchester revised its ordinance earlier this year to ban drone use in town parks. Parks and rec director Glen Cuttitta said the ban was introduced because the town already banned model planes and rockets. He declined to comment on the FAA’s authority over town airspace.
“Right now, it’s sort of fractured,” said Steve Budreski, one of the drone group’s founders who started a drone photography, videography and mapping business called AirShark. “It’s difficult for entities to make decisions and figure out what to do.”
Budreski testified in the legislature this year on S. 155, a drone regulation bill that focuses on privacy related to drone use by law enforcement that requires they obtain a warrant to use drones in investigations, except in emergencies. Regarding civilian drone use, it defers to the FAA.
FAA drone regulations require users keep their drones in their sight, keep them below 400 feet in elevation and operate them only during the day. They also ban drone use within five miles of airports. Drones are also banned in national parks.
Trustees have considered several approaches to drones, including a ban and restricting them to certain areas at certain dates and times with prior permission.
“We are not drone experts. We’re all trying to get an education on their impact and learn more about them,” said Tom Malinowski, Essex’s representative on the board.
Mermelstein said the drone group has stopped using Ethan Allen Homestead to give trustees time to decide on a policy. Instead, gatherings will be held on private property.
“The parks are in a difficult position,” he acknowledged. “Federal rules don’t allow them to control flight. It’s up to them to get some voluntary buy-in from the drone community. We don’t want it to be the wild West either. We want people to use these toys responsibly. If policies are adopted that work with users, we are happy to comply.”