Bloomberg News

Colorado Town Rejects Plan to Let Residents Shoot Down Drones

April 02, 2014

Drones won’t join coyotes as prey on the dun-colored prairie after voters in Deer Trail, Colorado, population 563, turned down a proposal for the town to issue hunting licenses for unmanned aerial vehicles.

Phillip Steel, a 49-year-old welding inspector, had written the proposed law as a symbolic protest after hearing a news report that the federal government is drafting a plan to integrate drones into civilian airspace, he said. The measure would have set a bounty of as much as $100 for a drone with U.S. government markings.

The issue drew 188 voters in Deer Trail to cast ballots yesterday, with 24 percent in favor and 73 percent opposed.

“That plan is a taking of property rights, a taking of civil rights,” said Steel, who wears a black duster coat and a cowboy hat. “According to a 1964 Supreme Court decision, a property owner owns airspace up to 1,000 feet above the ground.”

The Deer Trail ordinance highlighted growing privacy concerns nationwide with the expanded use of camera-equipped drones, which can be as small as radio-controlled aircraft. Thirteen states enacted laws addressing use of the vehicles, and others are being considered in Indiana, Washington and Utah, according to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.

The drone-hunting ordinance came against a backdrop of secession votes last year in 11 rural Colorado counties seeking to form a 51st state -- with five voting in favor of studying such a plan. The move also followed enactment of the toughest gun restrictions in the state in a decade, in response to a deadly shooting in an Aurora movie theater.

Shooting Drones

The Deer Trail proposal would have allowed those holding a $25 hunting license to shoot at drones within the one-square-mile town limits. Even if the ordinance had been approved, anyone who shot at a drone could have been subject to criminal or civil liability, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

A drone “hit by gunfire could crash, causing damage to persons or property on the ground, or it could collide with other objects in the air,” the FAA said in a statement. “Shooting at an unmanned aircraft could result in criminal or civil liability, just as would firing at a manned airplane.”

Congress asked the FAA to develop a plan to integrate drones into U.S. airspace by September, 2015. The agency estimates about 7,500 commercial unmanned aircraft will be operating within five years of being allowed in U.S. airspace.

Drone Uses

So far, educational, law enforcement and military entities have applied for approval from the FAA to operate drones in the U.S., the agency said. The agency has approved 423 applications, FAA data show.

Unmanned aerial vehicles can be used by search and rescue officers to find missing children, to monitor weather or wildlife and to provide disaster relief, said Melanie Hinton, a spokeswoman for the Arlington, Virginia-based Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, in an e-mail.

“The myriad of important uses will be imperiled if they become targets,” Hinton said.

Steel was required to gather 19 signatures, or 5 percent of the registered voters in Deer Trail, to get the measure on the ballot. He turned in 23. Voter interest was high in the town, located about 56 miles (90 kilometers) east of Denver, said Mayor Frank Fields.

“This could bring in some free money -- that’s why I’m all for it,” Fields said.

The proposal would have allowed town officials to spend as much as $10,000 in municipal funds to “establish an unmanned aerial vehicle recognition program.” Shooters would have been restricted to private property and would have been limited to three shots per so-called engagement, “unless there exists an imminent threat to life and safety.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jennifer Oldham in Denver at joldham1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net Pete Young, Michael Shepard


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