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Coming to a sky near you: Drones over Nevada County

New technology saves taxpayer dollars, officials say - Activists decry loss of privacy and property rights


By: YubaNet

NEVADA CITY, Calif. April 1, 2013 - Nevada County is exploring the use of unmanned civilian drones - from mapping illegal marijuana grows to search and rescue operations in remote portions of the county - according to an item on the next BOS agenda. The item is expected to draw a record crowd as diverse as the "possible applications" outlined in the supporting documents.

Just like the medical marijuana cultivation ordinance, the proposed acquisition of six unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) is brought jointly by the Sheriff's Department and the Community Development Agency (CDA). The county's planning department, building department, environmental health and code compliance divisions are part of CDA.

Joining southern California counties in the quest to land one of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) test sites, Nevada County appears to take 'efficiency' and 'inter-departmental cooperation' to new heights, while ignoring privacy concerns and property rights of a wide swath of residents.

Test Flights already underway?

YubaNet has received calls and emails from multiple residents over the past two months regarding possible drone activity in Nevada County. The UAVs were described as ranging from oversized model airplanes to crow-sized objects. Several people reported "pinging" noises coming from the otherwise quiet machines flying at heights ranging from 50 to 500 feet.

Most of the reports came from the Penn Valley area which is in proximity of Beale Air Force Base. Calls to the media information desk asking for confirmation or denial of UAV use outside the base were not returned by publication time.

Deputy Danny Norris launching the Falcon off his shoulder during a test run at Mary's Loop trailhead. Photo courtesy Mesa County (CO) Sheriff's Department.
Saving Taxpayer Dollars - Creating Efficiencies

The joint staff report for the drone buy showcases Mesa County (Colorado) Sheriff Department and their successful use of UAVs since 2009. Cost savings for broad area searches, wildfire monitoring and aerial surveys reduced mapping costs from $150,000 to $200.

"These potential savings are crucial to achieving our mission to maintain and deliver core services to Nevada County taxpayers," CDA Director Steve DeCamp writes in the staff report. The various departments he oversees could greatly benefit from real-time mapping, according to DeCamp. He cites the streamlining of Code Compliance and the Building Department's desire to expedite the permit process for larger projects.

The Nevada County Sheriff's Office (NCSO) would fly the UAVs, since FAA rules state that only military or police can operate drones.

"I've wanted to use them [drones] for some time, but we don't have enough manhunts or search and rescue operations to justify the expense," Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal told YubaNet. "These UAVs are only cost-efficient if you get enough use out of them. But we definitely have an opportunity here to participate in the next phase of delivering services to Nevada County," he continued.

As the president of the California Sheriff's Association, an endorsement by Royal would be a feather in the cap of any drone manufacturer looking to sell their products to law enforcement and other agencies throughout the state.

"We are looking into existing ordinances governing the use of UAVs by other jurisdictions, no need to reinvent the wheel," said County Counsel Alison Barratt-Green. "We are cognizant of people's privacy concerns but there is ample precedent to demonstrate that this new technology is used responsibly throughout the country."

Not surprisingly, supervisors were a little reluctant to comment on the upcoming project. "I haven't made up my mind, I mean it's definitely a better use of taxpayer dollars than Solyndra or some of the other grants the feds hand out," Chair of the BOS Hank Weston said. He wants to spend a little more time talking to staff and hear what the public has to say. "You know we have to bring our costs down, so let's look at all the options."

District 1 Supervisor Nate Beason was a little more direct in his comment, stating "Yeah I know that everybody's going to call us all kinds of names. Look, we're not out to take pictures of your shed or your carport that may or may not be permitted. Code compliance is complaint-driven, nobody's going out to bust anybody. We have to execute all these state and federal mandates, with little to no funding, so if staff can make a case for this, I'm willing to listen."

As it stands, District 3 Supervisor Terry Lamphier says he can't see how he could vote to approve the proposed application. "I can't definitively speak to the decision I'm going to make but I will voice my very strong concerns. I haven't read all of the staff report yet and I'm sure I'm going to have lots of questions for staff once I'm done with it. I think it's important that we be very cautious when it comes to our privacy." Lamphier added he would like to see several public workshops on the subject.

District 5 Supervisor Richard Anderson also voiced some reservations. "I'd like to see more data on civilian drone use and the risks associated with operating these things in a densely forested area like District 5. I mean, what are the chances of one of these drones crashing and starting a fire? More importantly, do we really need these? I have strong reservations when it comes to curtailing people's right to privacy." He also pointed to a bill introduced by State Senator Padilla which is the first attempt in California to establish regulations on domestic use of drones. "We should wait until clear guidance is available before jumping the gun," Anderson concluded.

Broad Opposition to Intrusive Monitoring

News of the proposed drone use has sparked outrage by a broad range of groups, ranging from Americans for Safe Access (ASA-NC) to CABPRO and other property rights groups.

Patti Smith, the head of the medical marijuana group ASA-NC, was flabbergasted when she heard of the proposal. "This is just another tactic to stifle free speech and force people to comply with their unreasonable [marijuana] cultivation ordinance," Smith said.

Her group has already announced the launch of an initiative to overturn the existing medical marijuana cultivation ordinance. "If they think they can get away with flying over patient and caregivers' properties to collect information and then show up to raid us, they better think again. Patients have rights and we will fight for these rights. This could actually be good for our ballot initiative, nobody wants to be spied on," Smith continued.

"This is another reason why we are reaching out to other groups, some of which share our concerns for property rights and the right to farm," Smith said. "I see this as a kind of a perfect storm where everybody, from the ACLU to the NRA, to ASA and CABPRO can work together in opposing this blantant attack on privacy rights."

Chuck Shea, the president of the California Association of Business, Property and Resource Owners (CABPRO), at first didn't believe the rumors. After reading the staff report, which talks about mapping applications and cost savings in compiling biotic inventories required for all kinds of projects, Shea said that, sadly, this proved once and for all that his organization was right years ago when they fought NH2020 tooth and nail. The NH2020 program, which sought to implement the open space program of the county's 1995 General Plan, was ultimately canned by a very conservative board of supervisors and caused much strife and division in Nevada County.

"Our Constitution protects us from unreasonable searches and enshrines property rights. This is an attack on our freedom and our rights." He declined to outline what actions, if any, his organization would take but confirmed they would be present at the BOS meeting to make their voice heard. CABPRO recently sponsored a presentation by Arizona-based activist Doyel Shamley to the BOS on the need to "collaborate" with federal agencies and assert local rights over public lands.

A new group in the local property rights/preppers scene, American Patriots - Ready In Life, contacted YubaNet after hearing of the proposed drone buy. "You have made fun of 'conspiracy theories' and 'black helicopter scares' for years, now are you ready to admit we were right?" their group asked via email. "First they come for the pot growers, then they'll come for the rest of us. This is Agenda 21 on steroids," the unsigned email continued.

Audubon and Sierra Club birdwatchers contacted by YubaNet expressed worries the UAVs would interfere with nesting and migration patterns of birds. "Disturbing nesting birds by flying overhead triggers their natural protective instincts," said Sialia M. Avis, a member of the Western Bluebird Chapter.

Other residents potentially impacted by intrusive flyovers range from nude sunbathers at the river to property owners who have built or intend to build any structure on their land. Richard Dingle, who frequently seeks out a warm granite boulder to soak up the sunshine sans bathing suit heads the Facebook Group Yuba Nudies. In a direct message, Dingle expressed his misgivings: "We always try to find a spot on the river off the beaten path, to have some privacy and respect people who don't want to see us naked. I've communed with the river and the sun for over 50 years in my birthday suit and I want my grandkids to be able to do the same. We don't bother anybody, and nobody should be bothering us."

More information:

The status of domestic drone legislation in the states is rapidly evolving, as outlined in the latest ACLU report on the subject:U.S. law enforcement is greatly expanding its use of domestic drones for surveillance. Routine aerial surveillance would profoundly change the character of public life in America. Rules must be put in place to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without bringing us closer to a "surveillance society" in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the government. Drone manufacturers are also considering offering police the option of arming these remote-controlled aircraft with (nonlethal for now) weapons like rubber bullets, Tasers, and tear gas.

Read the ACLU's full report on domestic drones here.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)recently filed suit against the Federal Aviation Administration seeking information on drone flights in the United States.

Christian Science Monitor: Drones over America: public safety benefit or 'creepy' privacy threat?

NBC News Open Channel: Damn the regulations! Drones plying US skies without waiting for FAA rules

Editor's Note: April 2, 2013 - Happy April Fools! :)


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