U.S. District Court rules against city drone ordinance; could have future implications for counties

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U.S. District Court Rules Against City Drone Ordinance; could have future implications for counties

On September 21, a U.S. District Court judge handed down a decision that could affect local government’s ability to implement safety and privacy ordinances pertaining to drone flights. The case of Singer v. Newton stemmed from a City of Newton, Massachusetts Ordinance enacted last year that intended to regulate the use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs) within the city limits. 

Dr. Michael Singer, a City of Newton resident, filed suit challenging four specific portions of the ordinance:

  • Requiring registration of drones with the City Clerk’s office
  • Prohibiting flights below 400 feet over private property without permission of the property owner
  • Prohibiting flights over public property without prior permission from the City of Newton
  • Prohibiting any operations beyond the visual line of sight of the pilot

The United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts ruled those specific sections of the City of Newton’s Ordinance are preempted by federal law, and cannot supersede the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in regulating airspace and aircraft operations.  

While this ruling only pertains to Massachusetts (the District Court’s jurisdiction), this precedent could allow future lawsuits challenging the rights of local communities in their attempt to provide a safe environment around the use of commercial and recreational drones. It also leaves the door open for local governments to offer future ordinances or laws to better coincide with the current existing authority of the FAA. The Court, however, chose not to rule on other questions pertaining to local government roles such as minimum safe altitudes or address longstanding court rulings pertaining to flights over private property.

In an unfortunate coincidence, on the same day of the Court’s decision, a recreational drone struck a Fort Bragg United States Army helicopter in New York City. The craft, a UH 60 Black Hawk, was flying at an altitude of 500 feet near Midland Beach. According to early reports, the drone was operating illegally and struck the helicopter, which was providing security for the United Nations General Assembly. The National Transportation Safety Board is continuing its investigation.

NACo continues to be at the forefront of drone policy, both in Congress and through its involvement in the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee. NACo remains the only local government group with membership on all three boards of this committee, allowing unfettered access to public and private stakeholders with a goal of joint collaboration towards county leaders being given the tools to keep their communities safe and secure.

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