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Encinitas moves toward regulating drones

Encinitas is considering regulating the use of drones in public places, saying the devices have become a safety problem, particularly at Moonlight Beach.

The city’s Traffic and Public Safety Commission voted Monday, June 13 to recommend the City Council draft a law governing the use of drones — a task that will be challenging because federal regulations restrict states and cities from setting limits on the use of the nation’s airspace.

The panel’s chairman, Brian Grover, said the city can’t let the safety problems go unchecked.

“I think an ordinance is definitely needed,” he said.

The purchase and use of unmanned, motorized aircraft systems — commonly called drones — has exploded in recent years, and that’s only expected to increase in the coming decade. The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that commercial operators and hobbyists will buy 2.5 million drones this year and by 2020 that figure is likely to grow to 7 million, a new city staff report notes.

As the number of drones flying the nation’s skies have climbed, so have the conflicts between drone users and people who don’t like the objects flying near them.

In Encinitas last summer, a beach-goer was arrested on felony vandalism charges after he tossed a T-shirt over an uninvited drone as it hovered over his beach party. The charges were later dropped, but the T-shirt thrower — Carlsbad resident Augustine Lehecka — became a bit of a folk hero to people who have had their own conflicts with drones and feel their privacy has been invaded by the low-flying devices, which often contain cameras.

The T-shirt guy is not the only person who has had issues with drones at Encinitas beaches, said Larry Giles, captain of the Encinitas Lifeguard Department. There have been several other recent incidents, including a two-day dispute between surfers and drone operators at Swami’s beach, he said.

Noting that the beach corridor is regularly transited by aircraft, particularly military helicopters, Giles said he worries about a mid-air collision happening between a drone and a helicopter above the sands of Moonlight Beach.

Encinitas already regulates the use of hot air balloons and gliders, and drone use should be added to that list, he said.

City traffic engineer Rob Blough said crafting regulations won’t be an easy task and will require extensive legal advice from the city attorney.

The Federal Aviation Administration has the authority to regulate airspace and is now crafting nationwide regulations on drone use, Blough noted. Ultimately, the rules the FAA sets will supersede anything that cities and states decide to do, but the federal regulations aren’t forecast to be approved any time soon, he said.

One recent success story was the city of Poway, which banned the launching, operating or landing a drone when a state of emergency has been declared in the city, Blough said. Poway sought that restriction because of concerns about the potential for collisions between drones and water-dropping aircraft during wildfires.

After the Moonlight Beach T-shirt-throwing incident, drone opponents encouraged Encinitas city officials to draw up regulations. The council asked the public safety commission to look into the issue earlier this year and issue a recommendation.

The commission’s chairman said Monday that he knew first-hand about how aggravating drones can be, saying he’s been at Moonlight Beach when three drones were flying overhead at one time.

“I think there’s an obvious public safety issue,” Grover said.

However, he and other commissioners said, they’d like the city to a strike balance, rather than seeking a complete ban on drone use. Grover said he’s seen how useful the devices can be for commercial operations, particularly real estate sales, and said they can also can be great fun when capturing surfers riding the local waves.

Barbara Henry is a freelance writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune


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