Poway city council enacts overreaching ordinance on personal use of drones

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Guest Commentary
by Steve Sarviel

Last night, the City of Poway passed a far (over)reaching “temporary” ordinance which in effect makes it illegal for most Poway residents to play with a toy helicopter or drone in the safety of their own driveway or back yard AT ANY TIME. By the city attorney’s own admission, they didn’t spend adequate time drafting the ordinance and said it would be difficult to enforce. He also admitted it was crafted to avoid conflicting with FAA jurisdiction over the use of drones.

Mayor Steve Vaus attempted to describe a “discretionary” enforcement of the ordinance, while Council Member Jim Cunningham ensured more strict enforcement. There was a clear conflicting message. Will it be up to the law enforcement officer on patrol to interpret a muddy directive and poorly written ordinance?

ANY law or ordinance which needs to be “selectively” enforced is a bad law in need of repeal and optional replacement.

While the apparent intent of this initiative was to “protect” first responders, specifically fire fighters in the upcoming peak fire danger season, the ordinance does not address just this, but rather puts hobbyists, aviation enthusiasts and even young children at odds with the law. The city attorney told the council prior to their hasty 4-1 vote for this poorly enacted ordinance there were already laws against interfering with first responders and those were also difficult to enforce.

Poway has embarked on a path of restricting the freedom of its law abiding citizens under the guise of “safety,” for a perceived solution to which there may not even be a problem. If there is, laws already exist to deal with it. Law abiding parents are now left to explain to their children, “no, it’s against the law to play with your toy (as they learn valuable lessons),” or to teach their children, “it’s OK to only follow some laws because the mayor says ‘we will use discretion when enforcing the law.’”

Simply put, this was a very bad step in the direction of regulating away the freedom of Poway residents. This is a dangerous path for what has been a great city, which the current mayor campaigned on making an even better. Enacting laws in haste which are by their own admission not good, is not the way to accomplish this. Impinging on the freedom of the city’s residents with laws that may not actually solve a problem which even exists is not a good way to accomplish this. Forcing parents to either encourage their children to violate the law or be selective in which ones should be obeyed is not the way to make a good city even better.

Our city council and mayor can do MUCH better than frivolously enacting poorly written and overreaching ordinances.

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Sarviel is a concerned citizen and informed voter of Poway

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Comments 11

  1. While it may have been rash and ill-conceived in its implementation, I agree in principle with the ideal of the ordinance the inherent danger drones present in a theatre or area of operations where emergency assets are conducting the people’s business to save lives. I see families and kids fiddling with these “toys” that are actually fairly sophisticated…and made out of industrial materials and when lifted above 50 ft they de facto become a missile that can crush someone’s skull. The difference between remote piloted airplanes and drones, is the nascent drone folks often have no aviation or aerodynamic instruction. I have seen on the day after Christmas, dads and moms still in their holiday snuggly jammies with a cup of coffee at the closest open space watching their 7-8 year old flail around with spinning blades, bulky hard plastic objects that can cruise at 30-40 mph and when at altitude can kill anyone they hit on the ground. In this respect, it is not that different than a mini-bike, hobby rocket launcher, fireworks or even a firearm.

    I am confident we will see civilian drones in the not too distant future used as instruments or weapons of mayhem, even murder…because it is so simple, so effective, and so discrete. While this ordinance may seem draconian, it does get people thinking about the parameters, ethics, and appropriate use of this relatively new technology.

  2. It was a hasty action indeed but it’s a 45-day measure. Frankly, if you’re operating a drone outside of your property lines, you’re trespassing. I hope Poway get’s the permanent ordinance right so the beach cities might take action.

    I’m as pro-freedom as they come but I believe in property rights. If you fly your drone near me on the beach, I’ll Moonlight the thing

  3. Founding Father, I agree with you on what is the implied underlying intent of protecting firefighters and law enforcement personnel in the course of doing their jobs of protecting people and property. Mayor Vaus should be commended on the intent if this is the total intent. The primary point here is this poorly and hastily crafted ordinance does not do anything to further this intent beyond the laws which already exist, and it restricts freedoms of law abiding citizens which it should not do and creates a situation where people are put at odds with the law which must selectively be obeyed and/or enforced. Any law which does this should be replaced with one with specificity for its intended purpose. If the actual intended purpose is to eliminate the right of Poway residents of their right to operate a drone/toy from the safety of their property or other safe areas of operation, then I am completely opposed to that. This CAN be done in a manner which enhances the safety and efficiency of those who serve to protect our lives and our property. This can even be achieved in a way which would not limit the benefits of careful thought to just Poway, but to all surrounding areas and perhaps even on a nationwide basis. Hastily drafted/passed bad ordinances may not have any effect beyond restricting freedoms of law abiding citizens.

  4. Brian Brady, I’m not sure what “moonlight the thing” means but since it’s not legal to discharge a weapon in most, if not all, incorporated areas in San Diego County, which would be my preferred method of demonstrating my agreement with you, it must mean something else.

    There are laws on the books and FAA regulations specifically regarding the use of drones and there will no doubt be more enacted. Perhaps this discussion in Poway can lead to some SENSIBLE ones which do not restrict the freedoms enjoyed by law abiding, hobbyists, aviation enthusiasts and children with a thirst for learning. Invasion of privacy and putting someone’s safety at undue risk is not the goal of a majority of people in this category.

    This ordinance, as written, fails on many fronts. Poway can do much better and could, if done properly, help set a GOOD example for everywhere else. Let’s work with the Council and Mayor to achieve this.

  5. Founding Father, one final response to your well thought out comments. Unfortunately, you are probably correct about someone using drones for purposes of destruction. The Boston bombings got people thinking about the use of OLD technology (a pressure cooker) as a weapon of destruction. There are many other common items in modern life which can similarly be used. We already have laws against the misuse of these things for malicious purposes. Do they prevent bad people from doing bad things? NO! Should we prohibit the sale of pressure cookers, cars, hammers, propane, or any number of other things that could be maliciously used because bad people do bad things with them? NO! Can we educate good people to be more responsible? YES!

    Please join me in providing some thoughtful input to the Poway City Council and Mayor to enable them to replace this poorly crafted bad ordinance with some efforts which will have a positive desired effect and not impinge on the freedom of law abiding citizens.

  6. Steve, I think we are in violent agreement. I second, or third, the sentiment about freedoms and hasty ordinances. I specifically believe this is a trespassing issue as BB mentioned earlier. It is complicated as we are dealing in 3 dimensions, literally, and with a public coming to grips with this emerging challenge. Like mini bikes, rockets, or fireworks, these highly sophisticated drones are no toys. In capable hands, they can (and have been) be used as dangerous, even deadly, projectiles, deliberate or inadvertent.

  7. Steve,

    Much obliged….I would say we do have (most) reasonable regulations with those things you listed above (maybe less hammers…) and discern by age, licenses, mandated instructions, certificates, and in the case of firearms, self-governed safety classes, measures, etc…That is followed by the responsible and wiser people. Drones; not so much…they are prolific and ubiquitous. Remember, when airpalnes first came to be, pilots flew them in bolted down desk chairs, wearing ties and smoking pipes…we have come a long way from that “care-free” hobby mentality of aviation (and after thousands of accidents, deaths, and hard and bloody lessons). Sadly, this will most likely be the way of drones…when they start to commercialize internal turbo-fan propulsion, the speed, maneuverability, and thus lethality, will increase greatly. Also, they can be programmed by “way point”, eliminating traceable radio navigation, thus shrouding their origin, thus obscuring from where, and from whom, they came.

    In this increasingly chaotic political, terror, and criminal atmosphere, this gets really complicated, really fast…

    BL- I’m with you on crafting what the right sounding ordinance might look like…but it is like the “safety vs. freedom” conundrum…we saw that manifest when Rand Paul and Chris Christie sparked it up in the first debate…and they’re both Republicans… 🙂

  8. “Also, they can be programmed by “way point”, eliminating traceable radio navigation, thus shrouding their origin, thus obscuring from where, and from whom, they came.”

    Yes indeed they can. And there is no city ordinance which will deter anyone determined to construct a drone, program way point(s) and use it in nefarious activities any more than a law prohibiting a gardener from buying fertilizer will prevent a bad person from creating explosives for evil deeds. It’s already against the law to do the things which you describe as a result of the “lethality” of drones. We do not need more laws to restrict legal activities and behavior. The safety of our firefighters from “drones” will not be enhanced by making their safe and legal use illegal any more than making it illegal to start a car will help stop drunk driving.

  9. Steve- I agree…my central point is we are clearly struggling with an emerging technology that the ethics and operating parameters haven’t been flushed out and it creates gaps in public safety and exposes vulnerabilities to our security from those bent on doing us maximum harm. Millions of people every day do not kill anyone with a car…yet we know they are inherently dangerous and, over time, settled with operating criteria and safety parameters to minimize the potential inhernet danger of the moving automobile. Even the most laise faire Libertarians would concede age-restricted licenses, bumpers, guard rails, air bags, and select area speed limits are a good thing and add to the general safety of the public.

    I would add one aspect to your above thought- Yes, their are laws to address all the potential nefarious activity, and they don’t deter or prevent these things from happening. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and our current federal immigration policies are proof laws don’t stop much of anything if the parties do not agree. If that were the case, we would just pass laws to end war and hunger. Yet, in the shadowy and often ill-defined aspects on Islamic Terror, we need to take a more proactive security approach and not count on solely a law enforcement approach. Poway City Council may not be the body that will determine the overarching national security ramifications of illegal drone use, but they certainly started the conversation.

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