Will Vail become a no-drone zone? | VailDaily.com

Will Vail become a no-drone zone?

VAIL — Your flying Christmas gift may be grounded soon, at least in much of Vail.

The Vail Town Council is considering adopting rules that would ban hobbyists from flying drones over town property.

Craig Bettis, of the Vail Police Department, told the council the idea behind the proposed rules would be to bring the town in compliance with rules generated by the Federal Aviation Administration. That agency, which regulates manned aircraft, has been struggling to find a way to ensure safety as more and more private citizens take to the skies with their unmanned craft.

A Serious Problem

“It’s illegal to discharge a firearm in Vail, but could we have ‘make my day’ situations with drones?”Greg MoffetVail Town Council member

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It's a serious problem. Water-dropping helicopters in 2015 were unable to fly into a California wildfire due to the number of video-shooting drones over and around the blaze.

Private drones can also be heavy, up to 55 pounds. That's a big thing to drop from the sky — which does happen from time to time.

Vail Mayor Dave Chapin said during the meeting that one of his neighbors recently crashed a 20-pound drone.

"If that had hit something, it wouldn't have been good," Chapin said.

There's also the issue of flying drones in the flight paths of manned aircraft. While planes fly far above Vail, the town does have a helipad for air ambulance service, and there are regulations regarding flying drones in the flight path of those aircraft.

Much of the current flight path is over town-owned property, meaning streets and parks.

But what about the rest of the town?

While officials talked briefly about allowing drone pilots to fly over the town's dog parks in East and West Vail, that idea was quickly quashed. Besides the fact that those parks are in tight areas and surrounded by trees, there's also the real possibility that dogs might chase drones that are close to the ground.

"We might have GoPro (video camera) footage from inside a dog," council member Dick Cleveland said.

And, while flying drones over private property remains legal — at least up to an altitude of about 400 feet — flying over a neighbor's property isn't allowed. That's true both for homes, and council members raised the prospect of flying peeping Toms outside hotel or condo-bedroom windows.

"It's illegal to discharge a firearm in Vail, but could we have 'make my day' situations with drones?" council member Greg Moffet asked, referring to a state law that allows homeowners to use deadly force in the face of threats.

"It's an honest concern," Bettis said.

Possible Trespassing Complaints

Town attorney Matt Mire added that flying over someone else's property can, in fact, lead to trespassing complaints. Drone pilots could also face charges including reckless endangerment and criminal mischief.

Cleveland said he's in favor of restrictions on drone use over town property, based in part on a recent trip he took to the Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction.

"Someone was flying (a drone) there, and it was annoying," Cleveland said. "There are plenty of other places people can fly."

While it's likely that the council will ban drone use over town property, there may be exceptions. The proposal allows the town manager to sign exemptions for events such as weddings.

But just what might be allowed remains up in the air.

"The whole issue is a morass," Mire said.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com and @scottnmiller.

What about commercial drones?

While the Vail Town Council considers regulations that would apply to private drone use over town-owned property, commercial drone use is a different matter.

Vail Resorts already bans private and commercial drone use on Vail Mountain, but commercial operators will probably still be allowed to fly over events such as the GoPro Mountain Games. Even that use may be limited, though, to avoid the possibility of an aircraft weighing 20 pounds or more crashing into a crowd of people.