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St. Peters aldermen pass bill regulating aerial drones

St. Peters will be closely scrutinizing whether “unmanned aircraft systems” or “drones” infringe on city residents’ privacy.

The city’s Board of Aldermen approved an ordinance, at its April 27 meeting, which regulates aerial devices that can fly over residents’ homes and properties. The board voted 7-0 in favor of the bill with Alderman Don Aytes [Ward 4] absent.

Drones are small unmanned aerial devices that are flown by an operator via remote control. They can carry cameras and sound recording equipment and have become extremely popular in recent years. But they have also raised some complaints.

Alderman Judy Bateman [Ward 2], who sponsored the bill, told aldermen at an April 13 work session that a resident called her to complain about drones hovering over her house and swimming pool for 10 minutes. She said she felt that her privacy was being invaded and someone was looking in her windows.

Bateman said the city didn’t have anything on its books indicating that it considers drones hovering over private property illegal or trespassing. She said she wasn’t trying to outlaw drones, which are used widely by government and private industry, but rather ” to regulate that you just can’t start stalking people and getting into their private backyards and doing things like this.”

The ordinance is modeled information from a National League of Cities conference Bateman and City Administrator Russ Batzel attended last November. Batzel told aldermen that it addresses issues involving unauthorized surveillance and guidelines established by the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA].

The ordinance states that a person is liable for “constructive invasion of property” when they knowingly attempt or capture “in a manner that is offensive to a reasonable person” any type of visual image, recording, sounds or physical impression of someone engaging in “private, personal or familial activity.” This attempt or capture would be done “in a place in which that person has a reasonable expectation of privacy.”

The ordinance should not be construed to impair or limit lawful activities of law enforcement or government agency officials investigating illegal activity. Unmanned aircraft also have to be flown within the “visual line of sight of the persons operating the aircraft” and “flown for hobby or recreational purposes.”

Other ordinance provisions would limit drone operations from 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset. Drones weighing more than 55 pounds would be unlawful to operate in the city. It would illegal to operate a drone over private property without the property owner’s consent. They also would not be allowed to operate intentionally over persons unprotected by shelters or moving vehicles.

Bateman said the ordinance will be complaint-driven and police are not expect to be driving around looking for drones.

At the board’s April 13 meeting, Alderman Jerry Hollingsworth [Ward 2] said news reports he saw some years ago suggested that local regulation might be limited to a height of 50 feet. Above that, the reports suggested control of air space reverts to the FAA, he said.

City Special Counsel Randy Weber said theoretically, the law has always interpreted that a person’s ownership of property from the center of the earth to as far as into the sky as possible with some exceptions.  “You own up and you own down,” Weber said. “I think what you have here is a good attempt to address the concerns about just unlawful invasion of privacy.”

Hollingsworth said the ordinance was a great idea but asked, “How is it going to be enforced?”

“These $1,000, $2,500 drones, you could run those things a half mile away, how do you catch somebody?” he asked.

Weber said someone who is operating a drone outside the visual line of sight is operating the drone illegally. Police Chief Jeff Finkelstein said police will attempt to track drones that may violate the law. Drones are programmed or often flown back to their operators, he said.

City Clerk Patty Smith said the bill the board passed on April 27 was substantially the same as the board discussed earlier in the month.

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