Suffolk Pols OK Revised Drone Regulation Bill

A DJI Phantom drone has a Go Pro camera mounted underneath flying on April 22, 2013 (Photo by Don McCullough/WikimediaCommons)

Suffolk County lawmakers Wednesday passed a revised bill regulating the use of drones after County Executive Steve Bellone vetoed a prior version that banned drones with cameras at county beaches during summer.

Seventeen legislators voted in favor of the new bill, which requires the county Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation to draft drone-permitting rules by next year. Instead of focusing on camera-equipped drones, the new version instead aims to regulate all drones—dropping the constitutionally problematic provision restricting drone-assisted photography in public.

“If you are landing or launching a drone from a county park, you are supposed to get a permit,” George Nolan, the legislative counsel, explained before the vote. “That is the essence of the bill…When you operate in the park, it has to be within your line of sight.”

Suffolk isn’t alone in eyeing rules for the increasingly popular radio-controlled unmanned aerial devices. Nassau County lawmakers are discussing a similar proposal, as are the towns of Huntington and Hempstead, plus the Village of Saltaire on Fire Island. The Federal Aviation Administration is also drafting national drone rules, which are expected to be released next year.

Civil liberties groups and radio-controlled airplane hobbyists both objected to Suffolk’s first drone bill.

“In attempting to create a zone of privacy where none ever existed, this legislation unconstitutionally infringes on one of our most cherished civil liberties—our right to free press and speech,” Bellone wrote in his veto message last month.

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“We’re pleased that the county executive took steps to protect constitutional rights in Suffolk County,” Amol Sinha, director of the Suffolk County Chapter of New York Civil Liberties Union, said after urging Bellone to veto the prior version.

Sinha noted that the prior version was problematic not only because it failed to recognize that there is no expectation of privacy in public places such as county parks, it also was vague about what constitutes a county facility that it attempted to ban photo-drones from flying over without authorization, and improperly granted exceptions to credentialed members of the media.

The first version of the bill, titled A Local Law to Protect Privacy in Suffolk County, was replaced with A Local Law to Protect Public Safety in Suffolk County Parks. Suffolk County Legis. Tom Muratore (R-Ronkonkoma) said the new version will protect the public from errant drones, such as one that recently crashed at the U.S. Open in Queens.

“More and more issues are happening day in and day out,” Muratore said. “Those things can do some serious harm, especially to young children. I don’t want to say it, but down the road, we might say, ‘I told you so.’”

Bellone, who proposed the revised version of the bill as a certificate of necessity—expedited legislation that skips the usual committee and public hearing process—is expected to sign it into law. The parks department will schedule two public hearings on the new drone rules before February. Permit fees are to be determined, but violators would still face fines of $250 to $500.

The only lawmaker who didn’t vote for the bill was Legis. Sarah Anker (D-Mt. Sinai), who missed the vote. She was one of only two Suffolk legislators to vote against the prior version of the bill.

The Press recently reported that authorities have received calls about at least 20 drones spotted in Long Island skies in recent years, half of them in Suffolk, including one over a U.S. Coast Guard Station in June and another that scared a small plane pilot headed for Long Island MacArthur Airport last summer.

Since that story last month, Suffolk County police have received another report of a drone, this time in Ocean Bay Park on FI on Aug. 27. Officers told that operator to stop flying the device over homes, according to the police report.