Fearing that drones with cameras could intrude on residents’ privacy, the Suffolk County Legislature voted Tuesday to ban drone use over county public beaches during the summer and require operators to get permits to fly the devices in county parks.
County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) voted with 15 other county legislators to approve the bill, which carries fines of up to $500 for violators.
“People have a certain expectation of enjoyment when they go [to beaches],” Mr. Krupski said. “I would think it’d be very intrusive if people are flying drones on public beaches with cameras.”
Legislators Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) and Sarah Anker (D-Mt. Sinai) voted against the bill and South Fork Legislator Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk) abstained from the vote, saying he believes drone operators who are “engaging in legitimate aerial photography” shouldn’t have to get a permit.
The drone regulations don’t apply to news organizations who have credentials with the county police department, said bill sponsor Tom Muratore (R-Ronkonkoma).
Mr. Schneiderman owns a drone himself and said the birds-eye view is “a beautiful perspective for photography.”
“It builds that appreciation for nature and validates our purchases” of public land, Mr. Schneiderman told the Legislature.
The policy change comes as the Federal Aviation Administration is still working to adopt new regulations for drone use nationwide. The agency has been working on the guidelines for years; the rules are expected to be finished sometime next year, according to a recent Reuters article.
George Nolan, legal counsel for the legislature, said the beach ban applies from May to September. Any federal regulations about drone use would supersede the county’s law, he noted.
Before the vote, Mr. Calarco said the regulations might violate constitutional rights, since there is no legal standing for privacy in a public space, including beaches.
“You’re in the public. You’re in a public place. You have no right to privacy,” he said. “I think we would be setting ourselves up for a potential issue if we start shaking people down.”
Some legislators admitted they were torn between the rights of photographers and beachgoers.
Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) said as a mother, she understood the concerns about privacy. But she also said photographers who use drones have captured stunning images, something she doesn’t believe should be limited to news media.
“Even amatuers would want to capture that, with no ill intent,” Ms. Hahn said. She ultimately voted in favor of the regulations.
Others were simply bothered by the potential annoyance of having drones nearby.
“I don’t want to be lying on the beach and having these things fly over me,” said Legislator Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga).
Mr. Muratore wouldn’t say if the county had received complaints about drones in the past, but noted the legislature should be proactive to prevent their abuse.
“It’s like having car insurance,” he said. “You want to have it ready in case it happens.”
Mr. Krupski also said public lands had other restrictions, so limiting drone use wasn’t unusual.
Legislator William Spencer (D-Centerport) called the regulations a “good first step.” He said he received a drone for Father’s Day and enjoys flying it.
“It’s one of the coolest things and I see why enthusiasts are really enjoying this hobby,” he said. But he admitted he was concerned by “the fact that someone can just pull up to any of our county buildings and be able to fly these things.”
“The technology is unlimited,” Mr. Spencer said.