Council considers drone operations

Photo courtesy of Paul Hutchison This drone photo captures Mattson Funeral Home and the northern part of Forest Lake’s downtown. The Forest Lake City Council is unsure of where drones fit into the city landscape.
Photo courtesy of Paul Hutchison
This drone photo captures Mattson Funeral Home and the northern part of Forest Lake’s downtown. The Forest Lake City Council is unsure of where drones fit into the city landscape.

Though they felt that the larger legal picture surrounding the topic was still too muddy to take action, Forest Lake City Council members discussed regulating drones in the city during their Sept. 21 work session.

City Administrator Aaron Parrish said the topic was brought up because some council members had asked him about it.

Though some U.S. municipalities are regulating the use of drones, which are remotely controlled unmanned aircraft of any size, there aren’t many Minnesota cities that have taken any action. Parrish presented a sample ordinance from St. Bonifacius that bans all drone use in city limits by private residents or by law enforcement, unless the entity using the drone has a warrant or is using the drone to save someone who is currently in danger. The ordinance, which states that “the rapid implementation of drone technology throughout the United States poses a serious threat to the privacy and constitutional rights of the American people,” seeks to make the second offense of unauthorized drone use in the city a felony, though Parrish said that it’s unclear if the ordinance will be enforceable.

“It certainly is an emerging issue out there,” he said of drone use, remarking that the Columbus City Council has also discussed the topic but has chosen not to take action.

Drones have a variety of potential governmental, commercial and recreational uses. Municipalities can use them to assist with building and code inspections or to quickly map sections of land for geographic information systems. A variety of businesses, including high-profile companies like online retailer Amazon, are exploring the possibilities of delivering packages by drone. From a recreational perspective, some drone operators enjoy taking aerial photography or simply flying a remote-controlled plane or helicopter around.

However, Parrish pointed out that drones have also proved hazardous or invasive in cases around the country, with news crew drones accidentally disrupting aerial firefighting or neighbors coming to conflict over allegations of snooping.

Mattson Funeral Home Director Paul Hutchison owns what is technically considered a drone, though he calls it a quad copter. Hutchison has been operating the copter since the beginning of this year, taking aerial photos and videos of various subjects and events – always only when he has permission from those involved. He has photographed a fishing tournament and an excursion to a nearby pumpkin patch, and he also took aerial photos of the funeral home’s famous cottonwood tree after it was cut down following a fire (see one of those photos in The Times’ May 14 story, “Shade over history”). He enjoys flying the quad copter and wants to use it respectfully and responsibly, but he said some people are suspicious of such devices because of surveillance fears and other concerns.

“You have people sometimes who are misusing them and it does make (people) want it to be regulated,” he said.

Hutchison has a host of ideas for practical applications of drone technology, both recreational and commercial. However, he has been unable to find an agency that will insure his copter, making him less likely to use it in some of the ways he would otherwise like. He believed that drones could be of particular use in marketing some of the vacant land in Forest Lake.

“If you can have those neat angles that are sometimes from those lower perspectives than a true aierial shot could get, … I do think there’s true benefits,” he said.

When operating his copter, Hutchison sticks to a couple of key guidelines: namely, that he always keeps the vehicle in line of sight and that he never flies it above large groups of people (he also keeps it away from the Forest Lake airport so it won’t interfere with planes). He thought some light regulations on flying drones – for example, a certification process that would permit select users – might make them safer to use for responsible owners.

Multiple council members stated that regulating drones seemed premature given their still-developing legal status and the fact that it’s still hard to differentiate between different kinds of unmanned aircraft. Councilman Michael Freer said a drone could be a surveillance vehicle or a little RC plane like the one his neighbor flies around the cul-de-sac for fun – and, while he has a problem with the first drone, he doesn’t want to impinge on proper use of the second. Parrish added that drones occupy a tricky legal area, as lawmakers are still unclear on when a drone is flying low enough to trespass on another person’s property.

However, Freer was decided on one drone issue.

“I’m not in favor of the city buying any,” he said. “If they’re using it for (inspecting) roofs right now, in five years they could be using it for the police department.”

Councilman Ed Eigner said the city already has too many regulations and remarked that adding a regulation that might not be enforceable in a few years doesn’t make sense. Mayor Stev Stegner agreed with Freer about the city owning drones but said he didn’t want to impede private ownership.

“I do see value having commercial applications of drones,” he said. “I unfortunately don’t like the idea of enforcing city code with drones, as that seems too much like the prying eyes of government.”

Stegner jokingly added that with drones as a possible delivery tool, he wouldn’t mind if a local pizza place started using the aircraft to deliver food. Freer responded that the technology still may have unintended consequences.

“If you live next to the pizza place and you have drones flying by every 30 seconds, that could be a big issue,” he said.

The council does not want to pass any regulations at this time but asked Parrish to keep up on current drone legislation for future discussion.

Other business

The council also appeared to lay to rest the issue of paving “upper” Imperial Avenue. After hearing again from Imperial resident Pat Kennedy, who believes the potential per-lot assessment of $12,000 or more is too high, the majority of the council said they had no interest in paving the stretch of road when five of the six residents who would pay for it are currently opposed to the plan.
Paving of the rest of the road was brought up in June, when residents of “lower” Imperial Avenue asked the council to complete the paving of the road after the northern portion (called “lower” Imperial by local residents) was paved in 2009. Since northbound Imperial ends in a dead end, residents on the paved segment of the road have to drive over gravel to go anywhere; many of them believe the city blundered when it decided to only pave part of the road (learn more by reading the July 16 story, “Half-paved road gets another look”).

However, city policy is to specially assess residents for paving a gravel road, and since those against paving the road could challenge an assessment if they felt the cost of paving the road wouldn’t increase their property value by a comparable amount, the council was unwilling to move forward with the plan without more support from those who would be paying for it.

The council also spoke favorably of offering an early retirement plan for interested employees to take advantage of this year. If approved and if any employees would want to take the option, the council would evaluate the position post-retirement to see if it was still necessary.

  • DonK

    So we’re cutting the PD budget now, but down the road expanding it by getting drones and drone operators? The City doesn’t even have a City Planner. Way to go City Council.

  • FLRanger

    Maybe a drone would be useful to see what is really going at the Winnick Supply property since the owner doesn’t have top comply with current city ordinances and regulations like the rest of us

    “Councilman Ed Eigner said the city already has too many regulations’
    Maybe if Councilman Eiger would take a close look at Winnick Supply he would rethink his position on reguations – oh never mind, he votes in lockstep with minions that are lead by Councilman Winnick; the owner of the Winnick Junkyard… or I mean Supply

    • DonK

      Well put. City council has become a special interest group. We have a mayor with commercial properties on Hwy 61 that are ignored as well.