Government & Politics

Prairie Village’s new drone ordinance could cost violators $500 or jail time

5 essential tips for drone owners

With drones, being a popular gift item this holiday season, the unmanned aircraft systems program at Kansas State University’s Polytechnic Campus has five tips to help hobbyists fly safely.
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With drones, being a popular gift item this holiday season, the unmanned aircraft systems program at Kansas State University’s Polytechnic Campus has five tips to help hobbyists fly safely.

After years of discussion, the Prairie Village City Council finally agreed to limit how and where people can fly drones in the city — approving an ordinance in which violators could receive a $500 fine or one month in jail.

The council has been split on whether to restrict drone use, with proponents citing privacy and safety concerns — worries about drone pilots recording video while hovering over pools or outside of houses. Other council members have argued that the city does not have the authority to regulate drones and that the ordinance is addressing unsubstantiated fears.

But on Tuesday night, Prairie Village became the latest city in Johnson County to regulate drones, following Mission Hills and Mission Woods.

Under the ordinance, it is illegal to fly a drone near people without consent, over a large event without permission or over private property unless authorized. It is also illegal to use it for surveillance, while intoxicated or in a reckless manner or to equip it with a weapon. It is still legal to fly drones in public parks.

Pilots who violate the ordinance could be charged with a class “C” misdemeanor, the least serious type of offense, which carries up to a $500 fine or one month in jail. City officials assured residents that police officers will use common sense when determining a drone user’s intent.

“This is an important framework for our law enforcement officers to be able to protect citizens in the event of misuse,” Councilman Chad Herring said at the meeting. “I don’t believe our officers are going to be heavy-handed on this.”

Resident Inga Selders spoke in favor of the ordinance, saying she was frightened last summer when a drone flew over her pool while she was swimming with her children. A couple of years ago at the annual Jazz Festival in Harmon Park, a drone hovered over the crowd, igniting the debate about privacy and safety.

But Police Chief Tim Schwartzkopf said the city has received fewer than five complaints over the years regarding drones.

Some council members have voiced concerns about residents being slapped with a steep fine or jail time for accidentally flying a drone into someone’s yard.

“I bought my daughters drones … and neither one of them have cameras on them. They’re just little kid drones,” Councilwoman Serena Schermoly said. “So we (say) the boogeyman is going to show up with a camera with a drone. But this ordinance restricts all drones from flying around in the backyard and accidentally going over — that’s 30 days in jail. So I understand and I’m concerned about safety issues with cameras, but it’s not all drones.”

Many lobbying groups and drone users have opposed the ordinance, arguing the city does not have the authority to regulate drone flights in the airspace over the city. McClatchy, the parent company of The Star, also has voiced concerns to city officials that such an ordinance could limit news coverage by licensed drone pilots.

But the Federal Aviation Administration regulates commercial drone flight, so the ordinance would apply only to people using drones for recreational use.

Some drone advocates have cited a case in a Boston suburb, in which a federal judge overturned the city’s law restricting drones. The city of Newton attempted to ban aircraft flights below 400 feet and over private and public property without permission. But the judge ruled it does not have the authority to pass the ordinance because it is preempted by federal law.

Prairie Village city officials argued they carefully crafted the ordinance, knowing federal drone regulations are continually changing. They emphasized they focused the restrictions on privacy, safety and nuisance concerns.

“We can expect the law will continue to change,” City Attorney David Waters said. “If federal law changes, if the FAA adopts regulations that are not in effect today, we will probably have to revisit this at some point.”

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Sarah Ritter covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. Formerly a reporter for the Quad-City Times, Sarah is a graduate of Augustana College.