ASPEN --Regulating the use of airspace with Pitkin County's land-use code will be up for discussion Wednesday, when county commissioners again take up code amendments related to film and photo productions.
Earlier this month, commissioners gave initial approval to a simplified approval process for low-impact photo shoots and film productions - one that wouldn't require such activities to go through a full-blown permit application.
Also proposed, though, was a prohibition on helicopter use for such activities without specific Board of County Commissioners approval. The helicopter ban has long been an unwritten county policy, though commissioners have granted occasional exceptions, approving helicopter use to film the USA Pro Challenge cycling race from the air as part of that event's special-event permit, for example. Now, commissioners are considering making the informal policy on helicopters part of the land-use code.
A staff memo to county commissioners not only includes the helicopter ban, plus proposed criteria under which commissioners may permit use of the aircraft at their discretion, but suggests expanding the provision to also regulate small, remote-controlled aircraft that are increasingly used for capturing aerial photos or footage.
The memo proposes, "Helicopters and drones shall not be used for filming unless approved by BOCC at their discretion, under the following circumstances:
• There is clear and demonstrable marketing benefit to the community;
• The helicopter will be used for live broadcast;
• Factual representation shall be provided that there will be no detrimental impact to wildlife;
• Safety concerns shall be adequately addressed."
The discussion of helicopter use has raised concerns among local filmmakers and the Federal Aviation Administration; an FAA representative last week contacted Cindy Houben, the county's community development director, to discuss the proposal, she said.
"What we're doing is regulating land use," she said. "A land use that's associated with a helicopter is going to have to meet our criteria."
It's only within the context of seeking a permit for filming activity under the code that the county intends to have any say about helicopter use, according to Houben. The FAA official apparently was satisfied with the explanation; Houben said she hopes to have a letter from the agency stating as much by Wednesday's meeting.
"I think they're trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist," said local filmmaker and director Greg Poschman, of Aspen Moving Media.
Taking photographs or filming from the air with the use of a remote-controlled aircraft is becoming increasingly popular and occurs regularly, he said.
"They're going to be ubiquitous whether we like it or not," Poschman said.
Like others in the film industry who have spoken out whenever Pitkin County discusses its regulation of commercial and film shoots, Poschman suggested that the county puts up hurdles that send such activities elsewhere even though they could be both an economic and marketing coup for Aspen and Pitkin County.
Jon Fredericks, of Altitude Filmworks in Carbondale, said his company regularly uses remote-controlled helicopters. The unmanned aircraft are misidentified as "drones" by the county, he said. Drones can take off and land without someone working the controls on the ground, he said.
Whether a helicopter is piloted by someone in the aircraft or on the ground, Fredericks questioned how the county can regulate its use because airspace is the purview of the FAA.
"They're trying to enforce something they have no control over," he said.
In a recent letter to the editor, Fredericks noted the FAA has been mandated by Congress to create a regulatory framework for unmanned aerial vehicles by 2015.
In the meantime, Fredericks said, the county's proposed regulations could affect the ability of local filmmakers to do business.
The commissioners' Wednesday meeting begins at noon in their meeting room at the Plaza One building. The land-use code amendments are the final item on the agenda.