Deadwood Restricts Drone Use in Historic Downtown

Historic downtown Deadwood, South Dakota. (Chris Marshall/CNS)

DEADWOOD, S.D. (CN) – Deadwood, South Dakota – final resting place for famed Old West gunslinger “Wild” Bill Hickok – saw another foe downed this week: drones.

“We don’t want to completely prohibit drone use,” Deadwood’s police chief Kelly Fuller said. Fuller helped write the ordinance banning most unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) over the downtown, which the city commission passed Monday evening. “We just want to offer some regulatory tools to the use of them.”

After a first reading on July 3, the city commission passed the bill with little discussion.

“There were no real concerns expressed by commissioners,” Mayor Chuck Turbiville told the Rapid City Journal following the 5-0 vote.

Reports in both the Rapid City and Sioux Falls newspapers in the last week noted a dispute over just who can and should regulate UAVs, as the Federal Air Administration had previously discouraged ad hoc policies. Chief Fuller even appeared off-guard on the phone Monday morning when asked about whether the no-drone zone over downtown Deadwood – recognized since 1961 as a Historic District – would conflict with South Dakota’s new state law banning surveillance and the transport of illegal materials using drones.

“What law?” Fuller asked.

But the new ordinance, Fuller said, will give Deadwood more local control and protection over that downtown district – a series of brick buildings, casinos, saloons, cobblestone streets, a church, and an elementary school in the narrow gulch where a gold-mining camp once boomed. Photographers or promoters can still apply for permits 45 days in advance, and the ordinance has exemptions for law enforcement and the military.

Fuller sees another upside.

“We’d had some close calls,” Fuller said, recalling a drone flying over a packed city concert two years ago. “So we want to be on the safe side.”

Deadwood is not the only South Dakota town working on the drone issue. The northern Black Hills destination draws 2 million tourists annually thanks to its legalized gambling, festivals and Western lore, and is perhaps a natural fit for provisions against UAVs. But it’s not the first municipal drone ban in the state.

“I can say we’ve had zero violations in the year since the ban took effect,” said Aberdeen Police Chief Dave McNeil. The city of 27,000 in the north-central plains region of the state – along with surrounding Brown County – passed an ordinance in June 2016 creating a “no-fly” zone around the city.

A patchwork of ideas to regulate drones has emerged in South Dakota. In Sioux Falls, the state’s largest city, drones under two pounds are allowed over city parks. Statewide, Senate Bill 80 took effect on July 1 to address public-safety concerns over drones.

“I’d initially wanted a simple ban against weaponizing drones,” said state Sen. Art Rusch, a Republican from the college town of Vermillion. “But I ran into the Second Amendment crowd.”

Rusch sponsored SB 80, which threatens a year in jail for rogue drone operators who snoop on their neighbors. He said many of the concerns brought to him involved protecting public safety, a theme that resonated with Deadwood’s police chief.

“We’ve got a lot of hotels in Deadwood,” Chief Fuller said. “And we don’t want someone peeping in any windows.”

So far, most of the drone use in South Dakota is happening on farms and ranches.

“Farmers can use drones to check on crops, and ranchers find them helpful for spotting cattle in hard-to-reach places,” said Dan Scholl, vice president of research and development at South Dakota State University. “It’ll be our students who develop ways to use drones that you or I can’t think of.”

As of now, though, South Dakota lags its neighbor to the north in embracing UAVs. The University of North Dakota offers the first drone-pilot program at a college. And in 2015, the North Dakota Legislature allowed for armed police drones. South Dakota law enforcement has taken a more cautious approach.

“Last year we used a drone to locate a missing person in a creek,” said Chief McNeil, who shares the drone with the Brown County Emergency Management office.  “We just also want to be aware of people’s constitutional rights to privacy.”

Sioux Falls-based photographer Isaac Show has used drones in the past to shoot photographs, including at local concerts and city parks. Last summer, Show flew a camera mounted onto a drone over the dried-up Los Angeles River.

(Chris Marshall/CNS)

“I tend to ask for forgiveness before permission,” said Show. “So having looser restrictions would be nice.”

But he did note the app he uses to fly his drone prevents him from flying in certain areas.

“There is really no chance I can fly in these red zones,” he said.

The Deadwood drone policy not only prohibits flying over the historic downtown, including a church and elementary school, but also flying over any person, vehicle or property without consent. Violation has a maximum penalty of $500 and up to 30 days in jail.


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