Commercial UAS operators rally in Southern California in response to proposed drone ban


At the March 7 City Council meeting in Laguna Beach, Calif. a proposed addition to the Laguna Beach Municipal Code was introduced that would ban drone flights over numerous areas of the city including several popular beaches. Chapter 7.80 “Regulation of Unmanned Aircraft” would also require any commercial operators to obtain a special permit from the city for any video or photography within city limits.

The proposal initiated with the police department and Chief of Police Laura Farinella introduced the measure with a presentation to city leaders, saying that complaints about drones in the community are on the rise.

“I have literally sat with people an hour in my conference room just so they can vent to me about how frustrated they are but there is literally nothing we can do,” she said, adding that the police lacked the authority to cite drone operators.

Laguna Beach Mayor Toni Iseman commented that she believes drones are a noise nuisance in the community saying drones “are terrifying, like having motorcycles circle around your head.”

Local Laguna Beach residents and FAA certified remote pilots Joe Cockrell and John Barrett led opposition to the measure and encouraged other operators in the area to speak during public testimony.  

“As business owners, as commercial operators, we share your concerns about safety but there are some unintended consequences that you might not have considered here,” Cockrell said. “We love this community and we love highlighting this community but one of those unintended consequences, the way it is worded right now, is the negative impact on the ability to market tourism in this community. We urge you not to enact these new rules until you have collaborated with us.”

During his testimony Barrett pointed out that he was hired to film aerial video of Laguna Beach for the upcoming film Everything Laguna which was commissioned by a non-profit that is funded by tax dollars. “So in essence you’ve hired me as a drone operator” he said. “But these new rules could have a severe negative impact on both businesses and nonprofits in Laguna Beach.”

The group successfully convinced the City Council to compromise by delaying the new rules and create a committee of commercial drone operators to assist with updating the drafted ordinance. The three FAA certified operators who reside in Laguna Beach, including Cockrell and Barrett, make up that new committee.

“I’m very pleased that the City Council listened to our concerns and is engaging the commercial operators in an advisory role,” Cockrell said. “I am also grateful to the Law Firm of Anderson, McPharlin & Conners and its attorney D. Damon Willens for the research and information he has provided regarding the matter.”

Willens is also an FAA licensed commercial pilot and head of the Aviation and Unmanned Aicraft Systems practice group at Anderson, McPharlin & Conners in Los Angeles. In a letter to the City Council he wrote “I have been involved in analyzing the legal aspects of other proposed municipal ordinances in Southern California related to UAS. I am very sympathetic to the concerns of the community and the Council that we work to establish reasonable, common-sense and appropriate regulation to ensure safety and privacy with this new technology while at the same time acknowledging the potential usefulness of UAS in many different industries and with many societal benefits.”

As one of the very few drone law attorneys in California, Willens provided a comprehensive analysis of the proposed new rules and urged the City to delay enacting them because of the possibility of entangling the city in legal actions. “There are several proposed UAS laws working their way through the state legislature in this legislative session, some of which if passed will likely conflict with the City’s proposed ordinance,” he added.

Cockrell pointed out that there have been legal challenges to municipal drone regulations, such as a current federal court case in Newton, Mass. where local drone owner Michael Singer filed suit seeking to void a new city ordinance banning drones.

“By attempting to regulate airspace and aircraft, the Ordinance increases the risk of aviation hazards, runs contrary to the will of Congress, and constructively denies [drone] operators access to the very airspace that the FAA allocated for them to use,” Singer writes in his lawsuit.

“The last thing we want as taxpayers in this community is to see the city entangled in costly litigation,” Cockrell said. “I am confident that the advisory committee of commercial operators can work with the City Council and Chief of Police to amend the proposed ordinance in way that is fair to operators and does not preempt federal or state laws, which could be challenged in court.”

The drone advisory committee will be meeting with the Chief of Police and a representative from the City Council on March 20, Cockrell said.

To view the public video of the council meeting and comments from the public see (the drone issue is item #12 and starts at approximately 39:00 in the video)

Joe Cockrell