After hearing passionate comments by more than 22 people, among them numerous model airplane hobbyists and birdwatchers, the Menlo Park City Council voted 4-0 on Aug. 23, with Vice Mayor Kirsten Keith absent, to ban remote controlled aircraft and unmanned aerial systems, or drones, in city parks.
The ban comes with a couple of caveats. First, drone use by emergency response agencies, such as the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, will be exempt from the ban.
Second, the ban could be modified as Bedwell Bayfront Park undergoes a master planning process, which is expected to start soon and might last into the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2018, according to Assistant Community Services Director Derek Schweigart.
A violation of the ban will be considered an infraction, which, according to City Attorney Bill McClure, means that the first offense will come with a $50 fine and will rise to $100 and $500, respectively, for the second and third offenses within 12 months. The ban will not take effect until a month after the second reading of the ordinance, which is expected to happen on Aug. 30. The park has no ranger, so enforcement will come from the Menlo Park Police Department.
While the ban will apply to all city parks, the main park that will be affected is Bedwell Bayfront Park, where numerous drone and remote-controlled aircraft enthusiasts fly their contraptions.
Like a kite
Of the opponents of the ban who attended the meeting, most were hobbyists who fly remote controlled airplanes, including gliders, rather than drones. Many said they scrupulously follow safety rules.
Appeals to the City Council came on numerous fronts. Richard Bright gave a multimedia presentation showing footage of model airplanes being flown to the jubilant tune of "Let's Go Fly a Kite" from Mary Poppins.
Andrew Harris, a San Carlos resident, told the council that as a kid, playing with model aircraft inspired him to work in aerospace and pursue work as a mechanical engineer. Now, he goes to Bedwell Bayfront Park to fly model airplanes with his daughter.
Hobbyists emphasized that there are different classes of such machines. Remote controlled airplanes and gliders have small batteries in them and are lightweight, with small propulsion mechanisms to control the height and direction of the planes once aloft. Drones, by contrast, can weigh up to 55 pounds, often contain cameras, are considered noisier and can climb high enough to enter federal airspace.
In response to expressed concerns that such machines can distress local wildlife, Ansis Upatnieks, a remote-controlled aircraft hobbyist, said that other potential threats to wildlife, such as bikes or dogs, are given rules to follow, rather than outlawed: dogs must be on leashes and bikes must stay on designated paths. "Why don't we regulate it like other activities in the park?" he asked.
Safety and quiet
Proponents of the ban said that drones create safety risks and noise that can be disruptive to wildlife and people.
One of the big issues is the risk that high-flying drones pose to airborne planes. YouTube videos offer evidence that drones at the park have flown higher than the 400-foot height limit. One recorded example shows a drone that reached 3,400 feet, said Mr. Schweigart.
Bedwell Bayfront Park falls within five miles of the Palo Alto and San Carlos airports. It is also near the flight routes of larger commercial aircraft that use San Francisco International Airport.
Allan Bedwell, a member of the city's Environmental Quality Commission, whose father was former Menlo Park city manager Mike Bedwell and the man for whom the park was named, said he supported a flat-out ban.
"(There's) no way to effectively differentiate between responsible users and those that are irresponsible," he said.
Drones could hit people or wildlife or cause fires, he said. He also noted that drones with cameras can be invasive of park users' privacy.
Years ago, he said, the park was the city dump. His father and a number of other city staff and open space advocates saw the site's potential and worked to turn it into a park.
Jo Killen, a Menlo Park resident, said that as urban environments become more dense with traffic and housing, there is a greater need for places to enjoy a quiet communion with nature. "This cannot happen with drones," she said.
Despite the ban, Michael Otrada, who flies a quadcopter, often called a drone, said he plans to keep flying. The hobby for him is a satisfying mix of art, engineering and being outside. "It's definitely not a hobby I'm going to give up because of one ban in one city," he said.
According to the staff report, other locations to fly remote controlled airplanes are farther away and include the Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve, Baylands Park in Sunnyvale, and the Santa Clara County Model Aircraft Skypark in Morgan Hill.