Jerry Dunlap has been coming to Fort Steilacoom Park to operate radio-control vehicles since 1971, when he and other members of the Puget Sound Model Boat Club started racing minihydros on Lake Waughop. They were out there this weekend as part of Lakewood’s Summerfest activities.
The 73-year-old Dunlap also flies radio-control aircraft above the popular 340-acre regional park — even though it’s illegal. Flying model planes and rockets is banned in all Lakewood city parks; it is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail.
Lakewood police have long had a tolerance policy, Dunlap said.
“It was OK until a group of people thought it would be cool to fly over sporting events,” he said.
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Sparked by a string of complaints, the city decided to investigate last fall, with an eye toward safety and possible changes to the municipal code.
“Calls were coming in from parents, coaches and kids telling us the planes were flying low over kids’ heads and causing a distraction during sporting events,” said Mary Dodsworth, Lakewood’s parks and recreation director.
“We even had drivers complaining of distractions out on Steilacoom Boulevard.”
When police started talking to hobbyists, it became clear that most didn’t know flying model planes is illegal, Dodsworth said.
Now the City Council is poised to approve changes that will clarify the rules, decriminalize the activity and designate a 5-acre site at the park where hobbyists can fly their planes.
A council study session is scheduled for Monday (July 13), with a possible final vote on July 20.
Radio-control modeling has been growing in popularity since the 1950s, and has gotten bigger in recent years with advances in batteries and electric motors. The RC hobby has seen exponential growth with the introduction of self-leveling, gyro-controlled quadcopters and fueled by the aerial photography craze and wireless connectivity.
The skies have gotten more crowded, and the politics more complicated, with the advent of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones. The drone boom has raised concerns about safety, noise, privacy and commercialization — issues that local, state and federal regulators have struggled to resolve.
They’ve mostly resorted to issuing rules on a spot basis, such as University Place’s ban on drones during last month’s U.S. Open at Chambers Bay.
In Lakewood, Dodsworth convened with Park and Recreation board members to discuss drones and the growth of RC aircraft as a hobby. They discussed long-overdue federal rules on drones that have left a void for local authorities seeking enforcement guidance.
The board recognized that something needed to be done and wanted to find a way to accommodate hobbyists.
Dunlap was appointed to sit on a study group with other RC hobbyists and bring back recommendations to the parks board.
“I patterned my solution after the city dog parks.” he said. “I suggested the city create a dedicated place to fly radio-controlled airplanes out at Steilacoom Park.”
The proposal includes two 5-acre sites as possible designated flying areas. Both are in overflow parking areas — one near the horse barn, the other near the red barn.
Dunlap and some fellow hobbyists went out and tried flying at both sites; he said either would work well.
Dodsworth said she’s confident the City Council will approve the proposal.
It includes reducing the penalty for improper flying from a criminal misdemeanor to a civil infraction, like a parking ticket, so that it will be easier for police to enforce.
The designated site would be for electric-motor aircraft only, Dodsworth said.
“We knew from our experience with creating dog parks that we needed to make the changes to the code by adding administrative rules,” she said. “By doing it this way, it will be easier to make changes once we have had time to see how the area works.”
Federal Aviation Administration regulations regarding the use of small recreational drones will eventually pre-empt any city regulations. Dodsworth said it will be easy to update Lakewood’s rules when the FAA regulations come out.
In the meantime, the new rules are good news for RC enthusiasts like Ken Sheppard, who’s been flying at the park for eight years.
“When I was a kid, I used to build model planes from scratch. When I got old enough, I learned to fly real planes and left that all behind,” Sheppard said. “Then, when I got older and couldn’t afford to fly anymore, I went back to my models.”
He said he loves the camaraderie he shares with the other pilots at the park.
“It’s a real melting pot of people that are a lot of fun to be around.”
David Anderson: (253) 597-8670