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York County Council to consider drone ordinance

An unmanned drone shot this photo while flying over S.C. Highway 160 in Fort Mill near Interstate 77. Concerns about drones flying over public places, where they can pose a safety hazard, and private property, where they can invade residents’ privacy, have led to a York County Council proposal to restrict when and where drones can fly.
An unmanned drone shot this photo while flying over S.C. Highway 160 in Fort Mill near Interstate 77. Concerns about drones flying over public places, where they can pose a safety hazard, and private property, where they can invade residents’ privacy, have led to a York County Council proposal to restrict when and where drones can fly. Courtesy of Phil Leazer

York County officials are looking at their options for how to deal with a new and unexpected threat – flying drones.

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are most often associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for use in missile strikes.

The civilian, commercially available versions of drones aren’t that deadly, but they can still pose enough of a danger that local officials want to regulate their use.

York County Councilman Michael Johnson of Fort Mill wants the county to impose countywide restrictions on drone flights, after several have been seen flying above Carowinds amusement park.

The drones, operated by persons unknown, have made appearances during the park’s offseason, but officials worry they could pose a threat to public safety if they crash into a crowd of tourists or collide with a roller coaster.

Johnson has asked the county attorney to research whether the county can prohibit drones from flying over any property in the county without the owner’s permission.

“Just like you can’t drive an ATV or hunt on someone’s property without their permission,” he said, “you shouldn’t be able to fly a drone over somebody’s property without their permission.”

The appearance of drones over amusement parks isn’t limited to Carowinds. Earlier this year, a teenager flew a drone over Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Fla., during the park’s New Year’s celebrations and posted video shot from the craft on YouTube. The Federal Aviation Administration is drawing up regulations that would restrict where, when and how drones can operate.

Carowinds has a policy that prohibits operating UAVs in or above the park, saying, “drones may pose a potential safety risk and may violate Federal Aviation Administration guidelines.”

Park officials requested action from the county, Carowinds general manager Mike Fehnel said, to provide further protection against unauthorized flights over the park.

“Technology is moving faster than the Legislature,” Fehnel said. “We just want (to get) ahead of this.”

Carowinds’ policy also warns that “any unauthorized drone(s) observed over Carowinds will be reported to the FAA and local law enforcement.”

York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant said his office hasn’t received any reports of drones hovering over Carowinds rides. While Bryant understands the safety and privacy concerns that go along with a sky full of drones, he wants to ensure his office will still be able to fly a drone for law enforcement purposes, if they ever get one.

“They can be very beneficial in searching for missing persons, or where drugs are hidden, or for wanted suspects,” the sheriff said. “We don’t have one right now, but I’d love to have one.”

At the same time, he said, the public can be put in jeopardy if a UAV is not operated responsibly.

“You do not want them over Carowinds, or football stadiums or public events, or flying down Main Street,” Bryant said. “I wouldn’t want one over my grandchildren.”

While the Sheriff’s Office has no drone of its own, the county engineering department uses the drone of Pennies for Progress manager Phil Leazer to shoot aerial footage of projects to use in presentations.

“They do really amazing camera work, and (Leazer) pays for it himself,” Johnson said. But “they always position it in a way that they don’t go out over the road.”

Besides the threat of a drone-mounted camera leering into private places UAVs can directly undermine security.

There’s a flying range for model airplanes directly behind the York County Detention Center on S.C. 5 that also attracts drone pilots. In April 2014, a drone loaded with contraband was crashed into the yard of the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville. The operator of that drone is now serving a 15-year prison sentence.

The goal of the proposed ordinance isn’t to stop people from flying their own drones, Johnson said, and recreational flights might even be permitted in the county’s Ebenezer Park. The measure would only set limits on flying over certain public places, like areas where large crowds might gather.

“If people had more common sense,” he said, “we wouldn’t need an ordinance.”

Bristow Marchant •  803-329-4062

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