South Elgin resident fights $50 drone citation

A South Elgin resident unhappy with the village's law regulating drone flights has hired a lawyer to fight a $50 citation in court; village officials, in turn, intend to report him to the Federal Aviation Administration.

South Elgin requires residents to apply for a permit to fly drones over public parks, but Keith Kmieciak believes the village has no business regulating his hobby.

Kmieciak announced at Tuesday's village board meeting his intention to fly a drone - sans permit - at 9 a.m. Wednesday over Jim Hansen Park. Kmieciak went to the park with local blogger Bill O'Neill of Elginet Media, who posted a video on YouTube showing Kmieciak being issued a citation by Deputy Chief Jerry Krawczyk.

Kmieciak argues that the village cannot regulate airspace and that he didn't violate the ordinance because he was standing in the street when he flew his drone. "I would be in violation (of the village ordinance) if I took the drone into the park, took off from the park and landed into the park," he said.

Village Attorney Derke Price said the village has every right to require drone permits. The FAA has jurisdiction only over airspace 500 feet and higher, and in the video, Kmieciak says he's flying his drone at about 130 feet, Price said.

Drone operators must be aware of local requirements and FAA regulations before flying drones, FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said. Also, local law enforcement "are often in the best position to deter, detect, immediately investigate, and, as appropriate, pursue enforcement actions to stop unauthorized or unsafe" drone operations, she said.

The village will report Kmieciak for violating FAA rules, Price said.

Price cited an FAA rule preventing drones, or small unmanned aircraft, from flying over people "not directly participating in the operation." Kmieciak, however, said that doesn't apply to hobbyists like him who are not flying drones for commercial purposes.

Even if that were the case, Price said, the FAA also has rules that prevent hobbyists' model aircrafts from flying over groups of people and violating "community standards," which in South Elgin include getting a permit, Price said. "(Kmieciak) refuses to acknowledge he lives in a society where there are competing interests of practicality and safety."

Some states have laws preventing municipalities from enacting local drone ordinances, but Illinois doesn't appear to be among them, said drone law expert Timothy M. Ravich, assistant professor of legal studies at the University of Central Florida.

Some suburbs like Schaumburg have drone regulations. Wauconda is considering doing the same, while Naperville decided to leave the matter up to the FAA.

South Elgin enacted its drone regulations in February and has received two permit applications so far, both of which were approved, Director of Parks and Recreation Kim Wascher said. One was for a youth doing an Eagle Scout project during National Night Out, and one was for the South Elgin Economic Development Council, which wanted to update its marketing video, she said.

Getting a drone permit ensures that anyone who doesn't want to be at a park while a drone flies overhead can be informed ahead of time, Price said. "That's why it's not a complete ban, to balance everybody's interests," he said.

Kmieciak said he simply enjoys the fun of flying his three drones. "They are so easy to fly and they have an ability to take amazing air video," he said.

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