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Committee Reviews Draft Local Law on Drones, Hears About West Hill Biggs Property

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Committee Reviews Draft Local Law on Drones, Hears About West Hill Biggs Property

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Tompkins County Legislature’s Government Operations Committee today resumed its discussion of “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” (UAVs), more commonly referred to as “drones”, discussing a preliminary draft of a proposed Local Law, which, if moved forward, could regulate use of the devices in Tompkins County..

The draft Local Law, prepared for committee review by County Attorney Jonathan Wood, would regulate the use of UAVs within Tompkins County that fly below a height of 400 feet.  (Current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidance recommends UAV use be limited to that level.)

Noting that UAV use has both positive and potentially negative aspects, the proposed Local Law would “seek to regulate the use of UAVs to prevent misuse, without interfering with the legitimate and beneficial uses of such devices.”

The draft law would prohibit flight or operation of a UAV within the county in the following locations:  over Tompkins County Jail, any correction facility, or any area temporarily closed to the public by a law enforcement agency; and over any stadium, mass gathering, or open-air assembly of people, without the written permission of the property owner.  For privately owned properties, UAVs could not be flown or used in any location that interferes with a the owner’s reasonable use and enjoyment of the property.  Provisions state that flying a UAV within less than 150 feet above a private property owner’s land or any structure on that land without permission would be presumed to interfere with the owner’s use and enjoyment of the property.  Also prohibited would be operating a UAV in a way that would interfere with a private property owner’s reasonable expectation of privacy in a private residence—such as recording images, taking photographs or  audio/video recording inside or outside a private residence without permission of the property owner.

The :Local Law would not apply to government agencies, such as law enforcement; fire and emergency service providers; uses related to a declared state of emergency; and those related to business of utility companies.

In discussion, it was noted that the FAA and Department of Transportation may be issuing regulations on UAV use, permitting, or registration.  Legislator Glenn Morey was one who indicated he would be willing to wait for the FAA before approving new local regulations.  Legislator Dave McKenna stressed that he wanted to make sure no local regulations interfered with activities of model aircraft hobbyists, especially youth.  Committee Chair Dan Klein said, as he sees it, the most important aspect of local regulation would be to protect the rights of private property owners.  “Without a law, I can do nothing,” he said.  The committee will take up the issue again next month.

Among other business, the Committee heard, but took no action on a request from Planning Commissioner Ed Marx to authorize the listing for sale of the remaining 26 acres of the former Health Department (Biggs) property on Harris B. Dates Drive.  Last year, NRP Properties and Better Housing for Tompkins County withdrew their proposal for an affordable housing development on the parcel after finding more extensive wetlands than expected, and Commissioner Marx noted that exploration of other options for use has produced no proposals for purchase or development of the property.  With the property already determined to no longer be needed for public purpose, he recommends it be listed for sale so that it can be put back on the tax rolls, with any sale including an easement to establish a permanent buffer along the portion of Indian Creek that traverses a corner of the property to protect wetlands on the site, in line with Town of Ithaca zoning requirements.

About a half-dozen West Hill residents, most members of the Indian Creek Neighborhood Association, addressed the committee, urged an open public discussion of the issue before any decision is made to put the property up for sale, to revisit the decision to declare the land of no public purpose, and to consider issuing a Request for Proposals focused on preserving the site, with its environmental benefits, for a non-development purpose.  Some asked that the parcel be allowed to be subdivided into smaller properties for potential purchase, an approach Commissioner Marx has indicated he does not recommend.  Committee discussion will continue next month.