In Sonoma County parks, laws vary over flying drones
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.