Suffolk County lawmakers passed a ban on taking photos or video from unmanned aerial vehicles known as drones flying over county parks and facilities in an effort to prevent violations of privacy.
County legislators voted 15-2 on Tuesday in favor of the ban, which prohibits camera-equipped drones from flying over county parks and county buildings such as police precincts, courts and other Suffolk-run facilities. Violators would face fines from $250 to $500 fine.
“It’s just like car insurance; you just want to have it in case,” said Legis. Tom Muratore (R-Ronkonkoma), a former Suffolk County police officer who co-sponsored the bill with Legis. Dr. William Spencer (D-Centerport).
Three drones were spotted near John F. Kennedy International Airport at the Queens-Nassau County line last year. Federal law prohibits drones from flying near airports.
“Look at the forest fires in California where they were trying to fight the fires but couldn’t have the aircraft in the air because there were photography drones,” said Spencer. “Firefighting helicopters couldn’t go … because they would risk crashing.”
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has 30 days to decide whether to sign the ban into law or veto it.
If enacted, camera-equipped drones would specifically be banned over county beaches from May 15 to Sept. 15.
“People expect a certain experience on these public lands,” said Legis. Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue). “I think it would be very intrusive if people fly drones with cameras on a public beach.”
“I’d love to see those skinny legs in shorts,” joked Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville).
“You can see them, you just can’t record them,” Krupski replied.
If enacted, those wishing to get around the ban on flying a camera-equipped drone over a county facility would need permission of the Department of Public Works commissioner. Anyone flying such a device over a county park would need a permit from the county parks department. Drone operators with a current Suffolk County police-issued press pass would be exempt from the ban.
The ban is not without its critics.
“I think this is treading on some constitutional issues,” said Majority Leader Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue), one of the two who voted against the bill. “You’re telling someone you can’t take a photo in a public place.”
“I think there needs to be more definition on enforcement,” said Legis. Sara Anker (D-Mount Sinai), the other detractor opposing the bill. “This is limiting the ability to enjoy our parks.”
Legis. Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk) abstained from the vote. As someone who owns a drone himself, he reasoned that those actually involved in legitimate aerial photography over a couple of acres should not have to go through the laborious process of obtaining a permit.
Spencer, too, said he received a drone as a Father’s Day gift and flies it regularly.
“I see why enthusiasts are really enjoying this hobby,” he admitted. Still, he remains concerned “that someone can just pull up to any of our county buildings and be able to fly these things.”