TOMS RIVER – The Toms River Township Council tabled an ordinance that would have set severe restrictions on the use of drones and other unmanned aircraft within township limits at a recent council meeting.
The ordinance was crafted in response to residents complaining that real estate offices were using them to scope out properties, and infringing upon the privacy of residents, particularly in the northern areas of town.
The ordinance would have allowed private individuals to be able to use these devices on their own properties or businesses, provided that the data collected from cameras would only be from their own property.
Drones for permitted uses would need to be registered with the township, at a cost of $70 a year.
The ordinance defined the main difference between drones and unmanned aircraft as the fact that drones have cameras, microphones, or other data collection devices.
Drones would be prohibited from flying in any airspace below 400 feet within the township. Unmanned aircraft would be prohibited from flying in any airspace below 400 feet in the following locations:
- Beaches when lifeguards are on duty
- Residentially or commercially zoned areas
- Any roads
- Over government or public buildings, property, or parks
The ordinance allowed such equipment by law enforcement agencies or legitimate scientific researchers. It also noted that they could be used at events as long as the users get permission, and the attendees are notified.
However, when the public was invited to comment on this ordinance, more than a dozen people put their hands up. By way of comparison, no one commented on the township budget that had been passed earlier in the evening.
Resident Michael Redpath referred to himself as a hobbyist, and said the ordinance is so restrictive that it pretty much bans the devices from the town.
He said the only people who would follow the ordinance are the hobbyists and people using them for legitimate business, because these are the only people who follow the rules. Those who wouldn’t follow the rules anyway, would not follow this additional rule.
Instead, the council should work on enforcing the laws that are already on the books that are being violated by these real estate employees, like filming people without permission.
Christopher Begley of Barnegat uses drones in his business as New Jersey Drone Services, filming real estate, mostly on Long Beach Island. He noted that he doesn’t canvas homes, but does aerial photography of client’s homes. He said the $70 fee is prohibitive. Worse, it could cause a precedent. Other towns could institute the same ordinance, and he would have to pay $70 to register in each town.
Hobbyist Matthew Lametta held up a small drone that could fit in the palm of his hand. He said it cost him $15, but he would need to pay $70 a year to fly it in town.
“In my opinion, I feel the ordinance is too broad, almost like a rough draft,” he said.
Shannon Murphy, a student from Toms River High School North, said that the ordinance would stifle people who are pursuing art and science through their fascination with this new technology.
Dr. Joseph Orleske, another hobbyist, said that privacy has already been reduced throughout everyone’s daily lives. There are security cameras in stores, dashboard cameras on police cars, and license plate readers on traffic lights. He also repeated what others have said, that the ordinance would not stop someone who was intent on breaking the law.
“I don’t think another ordinance is going to stop some bonehead from flying it below 50 feet,” he said.
The one speaker who was for the ordinance was a resident who had become the target of one of the real estate employees. She told the story of coming home one day, and finding a drone hovering in her back yard.
She called police, but didn’t stop there, she said. She drove toward where the drone flew off, and confronted the operator. Police did respond, and the situation progressed from there, but she wanted the ordinance to codify that it is expressly forbidden to operate these machines to spy on others or to scope out real estate.
She said she has a fence on her property and a “Do Not Knock” sign for a reason, and she shouldn’t have to worry about invasiveness from the sky as well.
“If we call the Toms River Police Department, and they say they can’t act (because there is no ordinance), then it’s a problem,” she said. “Your hobby should not come at the expense of my privacy.”
With a bit of hesitation, the Township Council voted unanimously to table the ordinance in order to work on it further.
“I fully support the need for the ordinance,” Councilman Jeffrey Carr said. “New technology tends to scare us and sometimes we react quickly.”
Additionally, he was concerned about the glut of registrations that the Township Clerk’s office would have to contend with when the ordinance became enacted.