ASPEN - Pitkin County has a long history of saying "no" to helicopter use for commercial filming. Now, it might formalize the prohibition in its land-use code.
Commissioners wrestled Wednesday with the helicopter issue and other considerations related to film productions and photo shoots within unincorporated areas of the county. They gave their initial blessing to a simplified approval process for low-impact photo shoots and film productions - one that wouldn't require such activities to go through full-blown permit applications.
Perhaps four or five such shoots occur annually, according to County Planner Mike Kraemer. They don't involve more than 15 people or five vehicles, take place entirely on private property and don't require more than two days of filming or photography. Under the proposed process, if an event met those standards and others, it would qualify for quick staff approval and wouldn't need a special-event permit.
But Commissioner Rob Ittner again brought up the even smaller productions, asking whether a restaurant owner shooting a promotional photo of a chef in a private residence is supposed to reach out to the county's Community Development Department. Ittner owns an Aspen restaurant.
"I don't know of a restaurant that hasn't taken a picture of their chef somewhere in the county," he said.
Photo shoots for real estate marketing purposes take place regularly, as well, Commissioner Rachel Richards pointed out.
Commissioners suggested that the code clarify what's simply exempt - activities that have such little impact that they don't even rise to the level of the low-impact productions that would be defined in the retooled section of the code.
The helicopter ban, long an unwritten policy, might be more difficult to add to the code.
Kraemer proposed a provision that reads, "Helicopters shall not be used for filming unless approved by the Board of County Commissioners."
If commissioners are going to make exceptions to a blanket ban, then the county needs to develop some criteria to follow, County Attorney John Ely said.
"We could be seen as arbitrary and capricious because we say 'yes' to one and 'no' to another," Richards said.
Commissioners have made an exception to the no-helicopter policy for the USA Pro Challenge cycling race, for example. That event uses the aircraft to shoot footage of the racers and the racecourse.
Commissioner Michael Owsley brought up a further complication to the helicopter policy, noting that unmanned drones often are used for filming from the air.
"I would just hate to have neighborhoods have flyovers by drones because someone is selling their house," he said.
"I don't know how to begin to treat that area," Richards said.