In Sonoma County parks, laws vary over flying drones

Policies vary from one jurisdiction to the next, while evolving standards over the technology’s use in general make it a challenge keeping up with the latest rules.|

Runners ascend a winding trail at Taylor Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve outside Santa Rosa as morning fog retreats and sunshine bathes the peak in a warm glow.

The scene is lovely. It also was captured on video by a drone in violation of a ban enforced by Sonoma County Regional Parks at all 56 sites the agency manages.

David Vaillancourt of Santa Rosa said he was unaware of the prohibition when he shot the scene. He thought the setting an ideal one for flying his $1,500 DJI Phantom 2 drone, which he has used extensively over a decade for both private and commercial projects.

“If you see someone flying a drone at Taylor and they’re buzzing runners and chasing cows, that’s obviously not a good thing and probably the reason why more and more no-fly zones are coming into existence,” Vaillancourt, 42, said. “That’s the equivalent of taking your car to a parking lot and doing doughnuts. It’s all about respect, responsibility and safety.”

With their wide-open spaces, sumptuous natural settings and relative dearth of crowds, parks would seem ideal places for capturing images using aerial drones.

But figuring out which city, regional and state parks allow drones and which prohibit their use isn’t always simple. Policies vary from one jurisdiction to the next, while evolving standards over the technology’s use in general make it a challenge keeping up with the latest rules.

Take state parks on the North Coast, for example.

Flying a drone in state parks along the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts is permitted under California State Parks policy.

But drones are banned at Trione-Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park near Kenwood, Jack London State Historic Park near Glen Ellen and at all other parks comprising the Bay Area District, which spans 28 park sites in five counties.

The different rules reflect the challenges of trying to set uniform policy for the state’s 280 parks, beaches, nature reserves, trails and other parklike settings. Instead, the state Department of Parks and Recreation gives district superintendents authority to manage drones.

“Each park is unique and requests from drone users may also be unique,” Gloria Sandoval, a State Parks spokeswoman, stated in an email. “Hence, the reason we don’t have a list of parks that do or don’t allow the use of drones.”

Districts limit or prohibit drones for any number of reasons, including fire risk, public safety or because it conflicts with other park uses.

Many park visitors would agree that having a drone buzzing about detracts from the experience of being outdoors. Privacy is another concern, although a public park arguably is not the place to claim unwanted attention. Still, it can be jarring to see an object flying overhead in a remote natural setting, filming all that it sees.

Vaillancourt, who develops software for heavy industrial uses, acknowledged drones can present real dangers if used improperly, referring to the devices as “flying blenders with four blades.”

“It could cause damage if you lose control,” he said. “There is a respect factor if you are in a crowd.”

But Vaillancourt, whose commercial ventures using drones include filming the Santa Rosa Marathon, said a regional park such as Taylor Mountain does not strike him as a particularly dangerous venue for flying and filming.

“Taylor Mountain isn’t crowded, and the views are pretty phenomenal,” he said.

Sugarloaf, with its soaring mountain vistas, also seems a great place to launch a drone. But such use has been banned at the park since July 2016, when the drone policy for the Bay Area District was implemented.

Sugarloaf officials have fielded few complaints about drones, including prior to the ban, according to Park Manager John Roney.

“I recall a couple of times that remote-controlled airplanes bothered other campers, but not drones,” Roney said.

It’s a similar story at state parks on the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts, where drones are allowed but have generated few problems, according to Mike Lair, acting superintendent of the Sonoma-Mendocino Coast District.

Lair said rangers have discretion to tell someone to stop using a drone under code sections dealing with unwanted disturbances of either people or animals.

“If someone is out there buzzing people, or disturbing wildlife (with a drone), you could use that (existing codes) to stop that,” Lair said.

To get around the Bay Area District’s blanket prohibition on drones, a person would have to obtain a filming permit under the California Film Commission or a special event permit that most likely would require environmental review of potential impacts to wildlife, according to Ryen Goering, superintendent of the Contra Solano sector of State Parks in the East Bay.

More public park agencies are taking similar stands. Sacramento County’s Board of Supervisors acted April 11 to prohibit drones in the county’s regional parks, joining an expanding list of public places where use of the devices is banned.

Sonoma County Regional Parks’ policy, which has been on the books for years, does not specifically cite drones. Instead, it references “model airplanes on or over land” and “model craft of any kind or description” that could “endanger or disturb persons.”

People still flout the rules. Park officials have responded by issuing warnings and in at least one case a citation.

Park rangers also put out signs this time of year to remind visitors of the ban on drones. The signs are at parks where officials have received the most complaints: Santa Rosa’s Spring Lake Park, Petaluma’s Helen Putnam Park and Ragle Park in Sebastopol.

“Our primary concern with drones is that they really distract from the reason people come to our natural areas,” Jim Nantell, the county’s deputy director of parks, said.

Several visitors at Spring Lake recently voiced support of the prohibition. Among them was Linda Cuddeford, who dipped a paint brush into a tray of vibrant watercolors to capture springtime scenes on an easel and pad cradled on her lap.

Cuddeford called drones “obnoxious.”

“When you come here, you have a high expectation of peace and quiet,” she said.

Vaillancourt said he would have expected a warning about drones to be posted at Taylor Mountain. His confusion over the rules also stems from the fact his drone includes software that is supposed to prevent its use in no-fly zones, such as near Sonoma County’s airport. The device either won’t take off, or will automatically return once it reaches the restricted area.

But where such official restrictions exist may not be clear. The Federal Aviation Administration has taken the position that a local law banning people from taking off or landing drones on public property, such as at a park, probably does not conflict with the agency’s jurisdiction, according to Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the FAA.

However, he said a local law that bans people from flying drones in certain airspace probably would fall under FAA restrictions. Gregor declined to elaborate on the policy, which would appear to allow drone use in parks so long as the aircraft took off and landed outside park boundaries.

Meda Freeman, a spokeswoman for Sonoma County Regional Parks, said the agency does not post every rule. Nor is it seeking to take a heavy hand when it comes to drone use.

“We try to strike a balance with the number of regulations presented in the parks,” she said. “If rangers notice someone using a drone, they will let them know drones aren’t allowed.”

A person who wants to use a drone in a county park can seek to do so with a film permit. But the cost is not cheap, starting at $443.

Elsewhere, however, communities are just saying no. The city of Santa Rosa, for instance, bans drones at all 70 of its parks and does not offer permits to get around that restriction, according to a spokeswoman. Flying drones over Courthouse Square, which is a week away from reopening to the public as a unified space, also is verboten.

Vaillancourt said he took his drone to a Tahoe ski resort, only to see a sign posted outside a gondola stating the devices are not allowed.

“Obviously, I didn’t fly,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 707-521-5336 or On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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