Politics & Government

University Place discusses ban on drones at 2015 U.S. Open

The city of University Place is considering a ban on drones in June during the 2015 U.S. Open.

The United States Golf Association requested the ban on the increasingly popular unmanned aircraft in preparation for the weeklong major championship at Chambers Bay.

“We wouldn’t let anyone bring these into the championship grounds and operate them,” said Robbie Zalzneck, USGA director of U.S. Open on-course operations.

“And we certainly wouldn’t want them operating outside the championship grounds (where someone might launch them toward the course),” he said.

Asking municipalities to ban the flight of drones is a relatively new practice for the USGA. The Village of Pinehurst Council in North Carolina enacted a similar, temporary ban during the 2014 U.S. Open and Women’s Open at the USGA’s request.

Even so, someone launched a drone during the 2014 U.S. Open. The ban allowed Pinehurst law enforcement to tell the person they were breaking the law, Zalzneck said. In that instance, an official contacted the drone operator and made the person aware of the ban, he said. He said he didn’t know whether the operator faced any penalties.

The proposed ban could keep people from taking unauthorized pictures or video of an event that will draw the world’s elite golfers and millions of dollars in television revenues. The USGA and the Fox network signed a 12-year multimedia deal last year for the U.S. Open and other USGA championships. The network’s winning bid was estimated at $100 million a year, according to ESPN.

Even more important, officials say, is that a drone ban would help keep the public safe.

“If you have a lot of people together and one of these things crashes, you have a public safety risk,” University Place city attorney Steve Victor said.

Victor updated the UP City Council recently about whether the council needed to pass an ordinance temporarily banning the devices in June 2015. The ban would not apply to people who fly hobby aircraft that weigh 10 pounds or less and fly in the line of sight, he said.

Victor plans to recommend the council ban the use of drones, but is still working on how the ban would be enforced, he said last week.

If the council follows his recommendation, the ban would prohibit people from launching drones from the ground inside city limits. It wouldn’t affect the actual flight of the remotely controlled aircraft.

The only agency that has control over airspace is the Federal Aviation Administration, Victor said. The FAA is expected to come out with new guidelines for drones next year, after the U.S. Open.

The ban also wouldn’t reach into Puget Sound, where someone could launch a drone from a boat. The city doesn’t have jurisdiction over the waterway.

So far, UP is the only Pierce County city the USGA has asked to consider the ban. It could make the request of neighboring cities, but wanted to start with the host city of the championship, Zalzneck said.

He said he doesn’t expect a problem with people trying to launch drones from neighboring jurisdictions such as nearby Steilacoom.

Having the ban in place “gives us the ability to do something about it if we see something that does cause a concern,” Zalzneck said.

The USGA is in regular contact with the FAA and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other public agencies as it gears up for the U.S. Open. It is also working closely with Joint Base Lewis-McChord, he said.

“We look at all aspects and we work with our public safety partners to determine what threats are out there,” he said.

It’s too early to say whether the USGA will ask the FAA and the military to restrict flights over the course during the June 15-21 event, Zalzneck said.

The disruptions and potential threats posed by drones at sporting events have been highlighted in recent weeks in Europe. The low-cost devices have flown over English soccer stadiums, according to The Associated Press, and one is believed to have filmed preparations for a London NFL game between the Miami Dolphins and the Oakland Raiders.