Parks commission plays it safe on legality of drones

GENESEE COUNTY — The Genesee County Parks Commission appeared to be in ‘play it safe’ mode when it comes to operation of privately-owned drones in the 11,000-acre park system last week, despite being told by citizen operators that their current restrictions and ordinances are in violation of state law.

Following public comment, Chairman Joe Krapohl said they are still looking to gather the data on drone operations.

He added they will take the information provided in public comment under consideration and added, “…but it’s this body that decides where we go with that, we’re not dictated by members of the public on what they want or per se what their wishes are…we look at what’s best for all of our users in the parks.”

Park’s Director Barry June said their rules have been reviewed by legal counsel and were approved by the Genesee County Board of Commissioners Jan. 23.

Jason Harrison, a Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) certified commercial drone pilot out of Lapeer County, addressed the board. He complimented the parks system as one of the nicest parks systems in the state and said because of the great parks, the drone ordinance needs to be addressed soon.

Harrison also instructs police and military in becoming certified drone pilots and works with at least one attorney who specializes in aviation law. He advised the board their ordinance is in direct violation of state law which forbids local units of government from acting or enforcing any unmanned aircraft or drone regulations.

He said there is an exception for drones the county itself operates. MCL 259.305, the Unmanned Aircraft System act which states “Except as expressly authorized by statute, a political subdivision shall not enact or enforce an ordinance or resolution that regulates the ownership or operation of unmanned aircraft or otherwise engage in the regulation of the ownership or operation of unmanned aircraft.”

The county is currently relying on the second portion of the statute which states “This act does not prohibit a political subdivision from promulgating rules, regulations, and ordinances for the use of unmanned aircraft systems by the political subdivision within the boundaries of the political subdivision.”

June has said in the past they are interpreting this as meaning they can regulate drone use. Krapohl said following the meeting they will be seeking additional legal guidance on the issue in the future. Harrison said they need to decide how they will do this in order to keep their parks police officers from breaking the law and committing federal civil rights offenses by arresting or citing drone operators who are following state law.

Harrison also said the Genesee County Prosecutor, David Leyton has refused to authorize charges against a person parks police arrested for operating a drone last year. He referred the commission to several sources where they can clarify the law.

Genesee County Deputy Chief Assistant Prosecutor John Potbury verified they denied a warrant request from the Genesee County Parks & Recreation for someone’s operation of a “drone” in a county park.

In his email response he said, “There was not probable cause to find the person was in violation of any existing state statute or county ordinance or park rule at the time.”

Joel Muxlow, another certified (Part 107) drone pilot also spoke at the meeting. “Drones are becoming more and more popular every day,” he explained and said regulations are changing every day and also offered to serve as a resource for the board.

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