After almost a year of deliberation, Kitsap County has unveiled a draft of an ordinance that seeks to limit drone activity near the five Naval Base Kitsap installations in the county.
Last fall, Navy officials asked the Kitsap County Board of Commissioners to consider crafting such an ordinance, citing concerns of drone pilots who might be trying to illicitly shoot photos or video of sensitive military assets in the county.
“The Navy appreciates the effort in Kitsap County to develop this draft ordinance," said Naval Base Kitsap commanding officer Capt. Alan Schrader. "As the number of (drone) sightings increase in and around Naval Base Kitsap, this ordinance will allow the Navy and local officials to have the authorities needed enforce and comply with FAA and Department of Defense rules to ensure base security."
The Federal Aviation Administration banned the flight of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, in the airspace above the boundaries of military installations in April 2017, yet the problem still persists.
37 drone overflights in 2016, 31 in 2017
This year alone, there have already been 16 drone overflight incidents in the airspace above Naval Base Kitsap installations, according to records recently obtained by the Kitsap Sun through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Previously, the Navy reported to the Sun through records obtained from a Freedom of Information Act request that there had only been only 17 overflight incidents in the airspace above Naval Base Kitsap installations for both 2016 and 2017, but a recent internal review of reports revealed the Navy had misreported the number of incidents.
According to Navy Region Northwest spokesman Sean Hughes, there were actually far more overflight incidents in the past two years — 37 incidents in 2016 and 31 incidents in 2017.
With the release of the initial draft ordinance, Kitsap County policy manager Eric Baker said the county will be looking to receive input from community members if the county commissioners decided to move forward with the ordinance after they've been formally presented with it during a meeting on Monday.
"Everything we have out right now is entirely preliminary," Baker said. "It will change. It's meant for public comment, public conversation. Expect lots of changes between now and if the board sees fit, moving forward for final approval."
No launching, landing within 3,000 feet of Navy installations
As it stands now, the county's proposed ordinance would establish a "protection overlay" that would extend approximately 3,000 feet from the fence lines of each Navy installation in Kitsap — Naval Base Kitsap-Bremerton and Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Jackson Park and Naval Hospital Bremerton, Bangor's submarine base, Keyport's Naval Undersea Warfare Center and and Manchester's fuel depot.
While the boundaries outlined in the draft ordinance fall mostly within unincorporated Kitsap County, certain parts, like a portion of the buffer around Naval Base-Kitsap Bremerton and Naval Hospital Bremerton, fall within the jurisdiction of the city of Bremerton, which means the city government will have to consider and pass a similar ordinance for those portions to be instituted and enforced.
"The Navy looks forward to working with other local cities to adapt similar ordinances to ensure the public has safe areas to operate their unmanned aerial vehicles while ensuring proper security at our DoD installations," Schrader said.
Within the proposed buffer zones, drone pilots would be prohibited from both launching and landing their unmanned aerial vehicles.
Navy officials believe an indirect approach to the problem by prohibiting such action — not specifically regulating drone flight itself — would effectively prevent them from flying over military installations in Kitsap and would legally fall under the county's purview.
"It's not saying you can't fly, but technically you can't launch or land, so you're not flying in that area," said Lynn Wall, NBK Community Planning Liaison Officer, when the Navy first broached the idea of an ordinance in September.
By the draft's definitions, launching constitutes "the automated lifting of any UAS (unmanned aerial system) or model airplane from the ground for a flight of any duration," and landing is defined as "the returning of any UAS or model airplane to the ground after a flight of any duration."
The Kitsap County Sheriff's Office will be responsible for enforcing the ordinance's regulation, Baker said.
Pilots caught could be charged with misdemeanors
The current language of the ordinance would authorize law enforcement officials to monitor and track any drones spotted operating in the airspace above the buffer zones "to determine if it poses a threat to a military installation." If so, then officials would be granted the authority to "disable or disrupt" the control of the system.
If a pilot were caught operating their drone within the buffer zone, they could be charged with a misdemeanor, and if convicted, they could face up to 60 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Their equipment could be subject to confiscation and forfeiture as well.
Baker said the county has incorporated ways for certain drone operators to apply for a permit that would exempt them from the restrictions in some circumstances.
"We wanted to make sure we could address individual needs rather than create a code that could be all things to all people," Baker said.
As the draft ordinance stands now, public unmanned aircraft systems, such as drones operated by law enforcement officials, would be exempt.
For businesses or commercial ventures that use drones to transport goods or merchandise and have a valid Washington state business license, the county has included a stipulation that would allow those types of entities to apply for a two-year blanket exemption to operate within the buffer zones.
For drone pilots who don't fit into either of those categories, the can apply for an exemption from the county to obtain a short-term, 48-hour permit.
Applications, which will likely be reviewed and granted by the Kitsap County Sheriff's Office, must include the following information:
- Specific details about the property from which the drone would launch and land.
- A list of all operators who will control the drone during flight.
- An explanation of the purpose of the flight.
- A signed affidavit attesting that the drone will not photograph, record or document activities of the nearby military installation.
If the county commissioners decide to move forward with considering the ordinance, Baker said the draft ordinance will undergo a public outreach period in which the county would seek out comment and input from key stakeholders in the community, including drone operators and property owners who would be affected by the proposed buffer zones.