Arcata Marsh sees the coming of the drones

News item: At the Arcata Marsh & Wildlife Sanctuary, birders and birds alike find themselves sharing the protected space with certain newfangled flying machines and those who operate them. While not particularly consistent with the mission of a wildlife preserve, the Coming of the Drones is perfectly quasi-legal – at least for now. Cartoon by Marna Powell & KLH| Union

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

ARCATA – Ah, the Arcata Marsh & Wildlife Sanctuary, where a keen observer out for an afternoon of communion with nature might behold the aerial majesty of the Marbled Godwit, the Great Gray Owl, the Double-Crested Cormorant or the Hamphong 424 Avenger FPV HD Quadcopter.

That last beast, or one like it, buzzed about the marsh on Christmas, remotely guided by the O’Blivious family, or one like it, from atop Mt. Trashmore. Earlier that day, another drone had been directed out over the Little Lakes property and the marsh’s Log Pond from a business’ rooftop on lower H Street.

While radio-controlled aircraft aren’t exactly what the marsh’s founders had in mind, it turns out that there’s no specific prohibition against their use. While “use regulations” posted there state that “No aerial obstructions such as kites, hang gliders, and model airplanes are allowed,” a drone isn’t technically an airplane, but more of a helicopter.

Arcata Municipal Code Title X, Chapter 3, Sec. 10625 states that “The air space above the Marsh will be restricted to the heights established by the Federal Aviation Authority. Restrictions include the use of hang gliders, kites, model airplanes and hot air balloons.”  

“There’s an argument that drones fit into that; there’s an argument that they don’t,” said Arcata Police Chief Tom Chapman. “It’s not a simple thing.”

He said that if reported, an officer would have a chat with the drone user, and try to get their voluntary cooperation on grounds that radio-controlled aircraft aren’t compatible with wildlife sanctuary values.

But, lacking clarity insofar as APD’s enforcement powers, Chapman said that if the droner doesn’t wish to comply, the officer will bid them good day and take their leave.

Update: A reader points out that drones over .55 pounds must be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration, which can levy fines up t0 $250,000 for criminal non-compliance. Chapman said APD officers could use the license requirement as an enforcement tool if the droners don't listen to reason.

“We’d hope people would listen to reason, but they don’t always do that,” Chapman noted.

That’s likely to change, now that city officials are aware of the problem. “It may be as simple as updating signs, or it may be as complicated as changing the Arcata Municipal Code,” Chapman said.

Some kind of official action seems to be needed, since friendly requests to drone operators have proven fruitless.

“I have only had one instance of a drone operator respecting this when it was brought to their attention,” said longtime marsh friend George Ziminsky. “The rest either say ‘fuck you,’ or say ‘it’s a drone, not a model airplane; what problem is it causing?’ ”

When Ziminsky explains that they are in a well-posted bird sanctuary and that a drone poses the same problems there as a model airplane would, at that point the droners abandon reason and fall back on the f-word.

Arcata Fire Battalion Chief Curt Watkins said that so far, local firefighters haven’t been bedeviled by drones at fires. Cal Fire, which handles fires on state land, has had trouble with them, though. That agency will ground its fire-suppression aircraft if a drone is imperiling them at an incident.

On Christmas Eve, a rogue drone struck a power pole and knocked out electricity to a wide swath of homes throughout Sunny Brae and Bayside.

Chapman said city staff will meet with the city attorney to better understand current enforcement powers and options for making them more specific as regards drones. If an ordinance is deemed helpful, it will be up to the City Council to rule on the wording.

“I think that the council should probably weigh in on that,” Chapman said.

Note: this story has been updated to correct the title of Arcata Fire Battalion Chief Curt Watkins.  


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