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Open forum set to discuss use of drones in Eldorado

August 19, 2018

To Greg Wightman, the high-pitched sound of the drone flying above his property in Eldorado was like a weed wacker in the sky. Sometimes it would hover in the air for as long as 45 minutes. It was “pretty obnoxious,” he said.

The device, which he believes was carrying a camera, was intrusive as well as a nuisance, Wightman said, because “we really like the quiet out here.”

Wightman is one of the residents who have complained recently about the use of drones in the subdivision of 6,000 people in well-spaced homes southeast of Santa Fe. Neither Wightman nor most other residents bothered by the increasing popularity of the unmanned aerial vehicles are asking for a ban. But they would like some restrictions on their use over private property by their neighbors.

Their concerns prompted the Eldorado Community Improvement Association board to draft a drone policy. It was released in March and restricts drone operators to their own lots, or a future-designated small aircraft flight area near the community center. It bans the use of drones within 50 feet vertically or horizontally of people who have not consented to the drone operation and makes operators solely responsible for all legal claims.

The policy was posted on the ECIA website for public review and comment. Based on the comments received, there will be an open forum on the subject from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday in the Railroad Building at the community center.

Homeowners associations around the country are concerned about the growing use of drones by hobbyists and others. In 2016, U.S. consumers purchased 2.4 million recreational drones and the number was estimated to double by 2018, especially as prices for the devices fall.

The Federal Aviation Administration regulates drones used for commercial purposes, but their rules do not protect homeowners from excessive noise, invasion of privacy or potential voyeurism related to recreational use.

Although no license is required for flying a drone for recreation, owners are required to register any device weighing between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds with the FAA. The cost is $5 for three years.

Aside from recreation, drones are becoming popular with police conducting criminal investigations, firefighters, real estate agents, farmers, professional photographers, and even with homeowners associations looking to save money on safety and security. Those are all legal uses, although operators must have a pilot’s license or a remote pilot airman certificate.

But homeowners associations are pretty much on their own in protecting residents from hobbyists.

Jeanne Hyland, another Eldorado resident, pointed out that Eldorado has regulations about barking dogs and hours for music on the community bandstand. People should be more conscious about invading others’ space, she said.

Hyland had several encounters with drones last fall while walking her dog in Eldorado’s greenbelt. Noticing one overhead, she said, “Obviously they all have cameras on them, and I had no idea if it was being used for legitimate purposes or not. “

Another time, she was gardening, looking forward to a peacefully quiet day, when she heard the distinctive buzzing of the drone overhead. “My thought was that this is a kind of nuisance and nobody is thinking about it.” She said her husband believes it’s a fad that will die out, but she thinks it would be wise to set some rules before people are hurt.

Hyland, a ski instructor, said Ski Santa Fe had to post a sign prohibiting drones two seasons ago after one being used to photograph racers fell out of the sky and nicked a skier.

“It would be smart [to adopt a policy for using drones] before this becomes a big issue or somebody gets hurt, or uses them for nefarious reasons like spying on a neighbor,” Hyland said.

Like others, she said she sees the fascination with flying drones but would like to see a designated area for using them.

“I don’t like being a rules and regulations person,” Hyland said, “but I feel people are already crossing the line. I moved there for peace and quiet, not for having someone buzz drones overhead.”

David McDonald, president of the ECIA board, said the association received 18 comments on its draft policy, ranging from “shoot ’em down” to “We don’t want any more rules and restrictions,” although a majority of respondents were in favor of some regulation.

Most expressed privacy concerns. “I’m concerned about the ability to attach video cameras to these drones and the privacy questions that arise,” said one resident. “They’re a noise and visual nuisance and I personally don’t like them,” wrote another. One objected to the idea of a policy and “further restrictions on living in Eldorado.”

McDonald said that the first complaints about drones were received in June 2015 and have trickled in since then. The board asked its compliance officer, Mark Young, to draft a policy. After the public forum, the board will decide whether to adopt it in its current format, or in a revised form, as board policy. It will not become part of the subdivision’s covenants.

McDonald said that Hoamco, the company that manages the Eldorado homeowners association, has addressed the issue with its other clients in the Southwest.

He said he isn’t aware of real estate agents selling in the subdivision using drones. And he also said that the ECIA is not looking at having a drone either for its own safety or for shooting down other drones. “I don’t see that happening,” he said, noting that “it’s a slippery slope.” He said he wouldn’t like the idea of a drone flying over his property to see if he has trash behind his fence.

The association hopes drone operators will be represented at the upcoming public forum because none of them commented on the draft policy.

The community is looking at all these issues because, McDonald said, “it’s here. Drones are part of our life now, and they’re going to become a bigger part and we can’t do a lot about it.”

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