Without Clear Federal Rules, Vermont Towns Consider Regulating Drones

Sep 17, 2015

The federal government is working to come up with rules to regulate drones, but as the emerging technology gets more popular, Vermont towns are contemplating whether they need their own policies on drone use to protect their citizens' privacy and safety.

Westminster town manager Russ Hodgkins said he received two calls recently from residents who complained of drones flying over their properties.

When the planning commission discussed the town's zoning bylaws last month they decided to include an ordinance that restricts using drones to take photographs of private property.

"It's something we never even thought about five years ago, but now it is something to think about," Hodgkins says.

The planning commission held two debates on drone use, and in the end decided to insert a short ordinance to protect peoples' privacy.

And Hodgkins says he didn't think it was going to be the last time the town would be considering drone use in Westminster.

"We have a very slight portion of [a zoning ordinance] that respects people's privacy on their own lands, including drone use." - Russ Hodgkins, Westminster town manager

"We have a very slight portion of it that respects people's privacy on their own lands, including drone use," says Hodgkins. "It's a very small portion of it. I'm sure in five years it will be a very large portion of our town plan."

It's up to the Federal Aviation Administration to come up with rules to govern the commercial use of drones, which are also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

The FAA was supposed to have the rules in place by this month, and the agency released a draft version of the rules earlier this year.

Until they're finalized, Vermont League of Cities and Towns Executive Director Maura Carroll says towns might want to wait before issuing their own regulations.

"A lot of officials are waiting to see what the feds are going to do and how states are going to get involved." - Maura Carroll, Vermont League of Cities and Towns executive director

"I think that the law is unclear about drones at this point in terms of what can be done at the local level," Carroll says. "A lot of officials are waiting to see what the feds are going to do and how states are going to get involved to make sure that there are safety issues addressed, and all of the things that there are concerns about are discussed."

The town of Pawlet also discussed adopting a zoning rule on drones and the state is investigating its role in the absence of clear federal rules.

In March the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Board adopted a rule that made it illegal to hunt with a drone.

The Senate Judiciary Committee last year debated a bill that would have forced law enforcement to ask for a warrant before using a drone. A committee is expected to further debate the issue this fall to prepare a bill for the next legislative session.

Vermont ACLU director Allen Gilbert says the state should require warrants before the police use drones.

"I think the courts are going to be faced with a lot of interesting challenges that come before them." - Allen Gilbert, Vermont ACLU director

Gilbert says towns might face stiff head winds when trying to keep drones grounded, and he said difficult questions are likely to be sorted out in the courts as drones become more ubiquitous.

"I am not aware of a robust volume of decisions in this area because really, this is something absolutely new," Gilbert says. "I think the courts are going to be faced with a lot of interesting challenges that come before them."

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 45 states considered bills this year to regulate drone use, and 19 have passed legislation.