ASPEN - Pitkin County commissioners on Wednesday decided to move ahead with an addition to the county's land-use code that prohibits the use of helicopters for filming purposes but left the door open to approving certain uses on a case-by-case basis.
Possible uses that could gain approval from commissioners in the future, according to a draft of the code, include a "clear and demonstrable marketing benefit to the community," live broadcasts such as the USA Pro Challenge bicycle race and proof that the filming activity will be safe and no danger to wildlife.
While commissioners debated the language in the code that will address helicopters, they decided for the time being not to regulate the small, remote-control aircraft that county documents call "drones" but which are actually classified by the Federal Aviation Administration as "unmanned aerial vehicles." Such aircraft are increasingly used for capturing aerial photos or footage.
It was Commissioner Rachel Richards who suggested leaving the "drone" issue alone for now.
"I personally realize I don't have as much experience with them or understanding about them," she said. "It's a relatively new technology. I know that in a lot of communities, law enforcement is beginning to use them. They're using them for wildfire spotting and a lot of different activities.
"I feel at least I need a better working familiarity with them before starting to say what is the appropriate code," Richards said.
With regard to the code language involving the ban on helicopters, commissioners indicated that they wanted a better definition of "filming." The proposed regulations state, "Helicopters shall not be used for filming unless approved by BOCC at their discretion, under the following circumstances."
County Planner Mike Kraemer said after the meeting that the Community Development Department will tackle the definition issue and then take the code language to the county Planning and Zoning Commission for review and comment, perhaps in the next few months. Following that process, the land-use code section on helicopters for filming purposes will return to the commission for another review and possible approval.
At the beginning of the discussion, County Attorney John Ely addressed concerns about whether the county could regulate helicopters because the FAA governs airspace. He said the helicopter regulation is included in proposed code changes that govern low-impact photo and film productions and not overall helicopter uses.
"It doesn't relate to anything other than that," Ely said. "Anything outside of the low-impact photo, movie and film production, these criteria related to helicopters would not apply. So ... it does not interject the county into the business of the FAA or change the way pilots fly helicopters or any other type of aircraft."
The helicopter ban has long been an unwritten county policy, though commissioners have sometimes granted exceptions, such as allowing helicopters to film the USA Pro Challenge.
Much of Wednesday's discussion involved details of the code language that allows exceptions for helicopter filming, including whether to say "live broadcast" or just "broadcast." Commissioner Rob Ittner wondered whether the language should read "sporting event" in lieu of "broadcast."
Commissioner Michael Owsley concluded the debate by pointing out that the commissioners' original direction to staff was to narrow the scope of the exceptions and that adding more language would create more unwanted opportunities for helicopter filming.
"In general, we're not in favor of (helicopter use for filming) and have never been in favor of it and will never be in favor of it," he said. "I'm still comfortable with (the proposed code) as it exists right here. ... It mirrors the approval we made for the bike race."