How to regulate drones? Newport prefers education over a new law

Newport Beach wants to mount an educational campaign for people who fly drones.

The remote-controlled, camera-equipped aircraft are popular for seeing the city’s coast with a bird’s-eye view. But privacy, noise and safety concerns about the buzzing, hovering devices sent the topic before the City Council this week, starting a discussion on how to control drone use.

Resident Erica Lowe said she has called police about drone users a few times. She wants recreational drone flights banned.

“These things are a complete nuisance. They are an invasion of privacy,” she said. “You can be sitting outside and you can hear these things directly right over you. I’ve seen them on numerous occasions, sometimes multiple, three, four at a time.”

Mayor Kevin Muldoon suggested analyzing existing rules and a model ordinance crafted by the Assn. of California Cities - Orange County, but not passing new laws.

“In many cases, it’s just going to be an educational opportunity to tell the person who just bought their cool new drone they can’t fly it that way. I mean, for a lot of individuals that’s what it is; it’s a toy,” he said during Tuesday’s council meeting. “I’d prefer to see a memo brought back on this item, and if we have the tools already in place with existing legislation and ordinances, see if we can move forward with an enforcement mechanism that’s agreeable to the Police Department.”

The Federal Aviation Administration governs recreational and commercial drone use. Commercial drone pilots, who fly them for commissioned photo or video work such as high-angle shots for real estate listings, must have a remote pilot certification from the FAA. But most users are hobbyists and generally unaware of the federal rules, said Lt. Damon Psaros of the Newport Beach Police Department.

For the most part, drone users — even recreational ones — in Newport Beach must run detailed flight plans past the air traffic control tower at John Wayne Airport. That’s because federal restrictions on airspace within five miles of an airport are relatively tight. Almost all of Newport Beach is within that five-mile bubble, except for the Santa Ana River jetty near the border with Huntington Beach, a small area on the southern tip of town and the area immediately around the Newport Pier.

Some state and local laws can govern drone use, Psaros said. A state statute allows police to arrest drone pilots if they’re interfering with an emergency response. General state laws on eavesdropping, trespassing and stalking also could cover misuse of drones.

A Newport Beach city code requiring filming permits for commercial photography also could regulate their use.

Kelsey Brewer, policy manager for the Assn. of California Cities - Orange County, offered the association as a resource to Newport leaders if they want to further tackle drones. Last year, the association, in partnership with the FAA, developed a model drone ordinance that has been adopted by nine Orange County cities along with towns in Texas, Tennessee and North Carolina, Brewer said.

Huntington Beach is considering using the association’s framework.

“One of the reasons that our drone ordinance was considered to be a model by the FAA is because it didn’t add additional regulatory schemes to what already existed,” Brewer said.

For cities, that means finding generally applicable state or other rules on privacy, noise and other issues and educating police and residents on how they could apply locally.

Laguna Beach, which is more than five miles from John Wayne Airport, has crafted its own restrictions. It bans drone use without a commercial drone pilot’s certification over all city beaches and several of its parks. It also addresses privacy, harassment and recklessness concerns.

Irvine, about half of which is within the airport’s five-mile controlled space, defers to federal rules but does require commercial pilots to have a city business license.

Newport Beach Councilman Scott Peotter acknowledged that drones can be a problem but he also supported a light touch.

“If we don’t need to pass an ordinance to accomplish our enforcement, that’s great. If we do need to clarify, that’s great,” he said. “If we just need to sign a couple of areas a little bit better so the newbies know what they need to do, maybe even giving them the number of the tower over at John Wayne.”

Even outside the five-mile radius of controlled airspace, low-flying aircraft such as Coast Guard helicopters and planes towing advertising banners can make drone use risky, Psaros said.

Mayor Pro Tem Marshall “Duffy” Duffield said his son, a commercial helicopter pilot, “is absolutely paranoid of these drones.”

“Private aircraft and small helicopters are made paper-thin,” Duffield said. “They’re not engineered to hit anything.”

hillary.davis@latimes.com

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