Bethany Beach Town Council takes aims at drones

As Bethany Beach welcomed in the new year with its inaugural beach-ball drop on Jan. 1, a not-so-welcome guest appeared: an unmanned aircraft — also known as a drone.

Some bystanders assumed it was the Town’s own “mobile aerial camera,” which was purchased in 2014 with the intention to use it for video and still images of “summer fun in Bethany Beach,” as well as of flooding and storm damage, for the Town’s website. That included Mayor Jack Gordon, who recalled his experience in March.

“There must have been 500 people on Hollywood. And I saw this green drone flying over. I didn’t think the Town was going to be looking at doing that,” he said. “And then I found out it wasn’t the Town. I have no idea who was flying a drone over 500 people. If it had fallen out of the sky, who knows who’s liable?”

That incident, along with other concerns and a general proliferation of the unmanned aerial devices, has led the Bethany Beach Town Council to propose restrictions on the operation of drones within town limits.

Councilwoman Rosemary Hardiman noted at the council’s May 20 meeting, when the proposed ordinance was introduced, that in the latest FAA forecast report for 2016-2020, hobbyist drone purchases were expected to increase from 1.9 million in 2016 to 4.3 million by 2020. The same report has commercial drone purchases increasing from 600,000 in 2016 to 2.7 million in 2020.

“They’re associated with a number of problems,” Hardiman said, including dangerous encounters with commercial aircraft, as well as privacy issues. She noted reports of drones hovering over beachgoers, as well as the New Year’s Eve incident.

“They can be inherently dangerous to the public health, welfare, privacy and safety, and the Town finds it necessary to be proactive by issuing this ordinance.”

The proposed ordinance would prohibit a drone from flying directly over any person not involved in its operation without that person’s consent, over property that the operator does not own (except with the owner’s consent and subject to any restrictions they place on the operator), or higher than 400 feet or outside the visual line of sight of the operator.

Additionally, the craft would be restricted from flying between dusk to dawn or when visibility is impaired, or by those who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. They could not be flown over any public assembly, beach, boardwalk or waterway, nor over land in the Town’s municipal (MORE) zone or over police facilities, nor within 50 feet of water plants or 25 feet of electric systems.

They could not be equipped with weapons, nor operated with the intent to cause harm, carelessly or in violation of state law.

The ordinance would not prohibit the use of drones for commercial purposes, but the Town would require a commercial operator to first obtain a permit from the Town’s code enforcement officer, which would require the drone to be registered with the FAA and be equipped with a specific identifier for that craft. Such permits would be issued on daily basis and be good for 24 hours from the time of issuance.

The ordinance would also not prohibit drone operation that is authorized by the FAA in national airspace, such as for research or agricultural uses, as well as for commercial filmmaking. Hardiman noted that the FAA has issued fewer than 5,000 permits for such operations, on a case-by-case basis, so very few are issued.

The ordinance would also not prohibit use of drones by law enforcement or government agencies. (The Town has its own certified pilot to operate the “MAC.”)

Those who are found in violation of the ordinance would be subject to having their drones seized by the Town, with daily storage fees being assessed until the disposition of charges against them.

Town Manager Cliff Graviet said the restrictions had been put together with the idea that the Town didn’t want to get involved in a registration system “where anyone flying over their own property would have the Town involved in their registration.” He noted that FAA regulations now require any drone weighing more than 5 ounces to be registered.

Vice-Mayor Lew Killmer asked what the Town would do with any drones seized. Hardiman and Graviet said they’d keep them. He also asked about how the Town would deal with a drone that entered town limits by coming in over the ocean.

Graviet said the Town would have jurisdiction in such as case, but the problem would be enforcement, since it could be difficult to locate the operator.

“On a crowded beach, you wouldn’t know,” Killmer said.

Along with the details of enforcement, the Town will also now be looking at developing specific fees for violations, as well as the permit that would allow commercial use in the town. Those are expected to be ready prior to a second reading of the ordinance, anticipated at the June council meeting.

Also at the May 20 council meeting:

• The Audit Committee reported another successful external audit by the TGM Group completed in mid-May, with no areas of concern cited and the benefits of an active audit committee and internal auditor emphasized as “the best defense against fraud” of the kind that “has been reported recently in local newspapers.”

Next year’s audit will have to include some additional reporting for pension payments, the committee noted.

• Hardiman reported that the Charter & Ordinance Review Committee has arranged a demonstration by Ocean City, Md., officials of how they measure foot-candles in addressing residential lighting ordinance compliance, as CORC works on its own ordinance. She said the committee is also working on ensuring signage regulations apply to all types of signs, as well as its ongoing review of town code.

• Cultural & Historical Affairs Committee Chairwoman Carol Olmstead said that group is already planning its cultural events for the fall and winter of 2016-2017, with a presentation on the native peoples of Delaware preliminarily planned for October and a presentation on Delaware’s First State Historical Park in February 2017.

On July 27, the group will carry out its plans for Periers Day, honoring the Town’s sister city in France. She said those plans include a local band playing music from World War II, with an event theme of the American military who were present during the liberation of Periers during World War II and the guest speaker being a local veteran who participated in D-Day, as well as plans to include Fort Miles in the event in some way.

Museum docents are also being sought for the town museum, and Olmstead said some consideration was being given to expanding the existing self-guided walking tour of historic sites in the town with occasional guided tours.

• Killmer reported approval by the Non-Residential Design Review Committee of a proposed new paint scheme for the mini-mall at 786 Garfield Parkway, in which each storefront will have its own characteristic color scheme for panels below the windows, such as a red, gold-trimmed panel for No. 1 Chinese. The DRC also approved added signage for the existing awning, a door decal and a small wall sign for Top Dog Grill at 115 Garfield Parkway, formerly Ocean Treasures.

• Graviet said a contract is expected soon for the Town’s Fourth of July fireworks display, with plans to shoot up to 3-inch shells from the beach at Wellington Parkway, assuming the beach has rebuilt itself to enough width for that to be done safely. He said the display could be moved to the far north of the town otherwise, but that would require an agreement with neighboring Sussex Shores.

Asked about the idea of again utilizing a barge to shoot the fireworks, Graviet noted that it would increase the cost of the display by $20,000 to $30,000 (the display itself is to cost $25,000 this year). He added that none of the past attempts to use a barge have really been successful. One year, he said, there was a storm and the crew had to be rescued by the Coast Guard and the fireworks ended up in the sea. Another year, the tug guiding the barge pulled it too far out to sea, and the show wasn’t very visible.

Killmer noted another year with heavy fog around the barge that meant the bulk of the display was visible only as “clouds changing color.”

“The barge is great because it can shoot a very large shell, but there are so many issues with keeping it stable,” Graviet explained.

• Along with the temporary relocation of handicapped-friendly beach access to Parkwood Street for the summer, due to the beach erosion, Graviet said the Town has created more handicapped parking spaces at the end of that street.

• Graviet also reported that the police department has been heavily involved in training of seasonal officers for the summer, with the standard minimum 48 hours of training used by most beach towns being eclipsed by the Bethany training, which takes 285 hours.

“No one puts more training into their seasonal police,” he said. “Many of them leave after three or four seasons and go on to other departments, and we’ve been fortunate to hire some of them over the years.”

• The town manager declared the Town’s summer entertainment lineup “one of best we’ve had in recent years.” But he cautioned that, due to the beach erosion, the Town’s Movies on the Beach, held each Monday during the summer, may have to be moved to the bandstand. In that event, he said, a smaller screen there would still accommodate “a good number of people, but without the appeal of the beach and people being able to spread out with their lawn chairs.”

• After some complaints about the LED information sign at the Town’s lifeguard station being so small that information took too long to follow, Graviet said they had just recently installed a larger sign that would display more information more quickly.

• Graviet reported that a cooperative project between the University of Delaware and Beebe Healthcare will again be taking place in the town this summer, focusing on surf-zone injuries, with daily monitoring of beach conditions being correlated with injuries reported at the hospital.

• Graviet also reported that the Town’s Blackwater complex is now being developed, with septic and well drilling this summer, and a bid out for the storage structure there. (Sussex County earlier this year denied the Town’s request to include a gun range for its police officers at the site.)