Regulation of recreational drone-flying is lax at best, an administrative and legal shortcoming that jeopardizes wildlife because drones can disturb birds and other animals, particularly nesting birds and their young.
Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA) staffers, at the request of the FCPA Board, prepared a proposal last year to allow the flying of recreational drones in two more county parks, Lake Fairfax and Popes Head. Currently, this activity is allowed only in Poplar Ford Park.
ASNV met with park officials, provided bird data, commented in public meetings, and raised many questions about expanding recreational drone activities in county parks. Thanks to our efforts, the officials deleted Laurel Hill Park, a meadow-grassland near Lorton, because of potential natural resource conflicts. Auduboners have observed meadowlarks and bobolinks on this property.
The 2018 Virginia General Assembly passed a bill, now law, that addresses local governments’ management of drone activities from July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019. The Fairfax County Park Authority, citing the new law, appears to believe that it cannot manage drone activity. Park authority officials wrote us, “In compliance with state law, the use of drones on Park Authority properties is allowed starting July 1. Pilots are expected to abide by all applicable Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, safety guidance, and airspace restrictions. We are hopeful that operators will respect other park users, stay clear of wildlife and natural and cultural resource areas and generally, be respectful in their use of unmanned aircraft over parkland.
“The Park Authority’s website on Model Aircraft and Drones has been updated with the latest information, including guidance for pilots and the public.”
Virginia Senator Scott Surovell has requested that Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring provide an opinion to clarify local government’s authority, including agencies like the Park Authority. On June 30 he wrote,
I appreciate the technology community’s concern about a patchwork of local rules across vast swaths of land over the entire the Commonwealth, but in addition to these wildlife concerns on park properties, I could likewise see scenarios where a local government would have concerns about third party’s utilizing drones over police stations or secure facilities such as jails or water authorities and have a legitimate interest in prohibiting these activities simply as property owners to protect public safety.
Thank you, Senator Surovell.
FCPA will hold a public meeting and comment period, in coordination with NOVA Parks, in the fall. We hope Auduboners will attend, speak out, and talk to their Fairfax County Park Authority Board members. You can find yours here.