Laws are in place to be followed and agencies are in place to enforce laws. But when two laws on the books appear to be at odds, which one should be followed? And what about enforcement?
At this point, it’s just hypothetical, but if someone decides to fly a drone over a county park without first obtaining a permit, it could become a practical problem given that county law requires a permit and insurance to do so, but state law says the county can’t enact such a requirement.
We recently published a story about an aspiring local drone pilot who was surprised to learn that in order to practice flying his drone at a county park, such as Sandymount Park, he would need to obtain a permit and purchase a “$1 million” insurance policy. That sort of county regulation seems somewhat understandable. However, Maryland law, which refers to drones as “unmanned aircraft systems,” calls into serious question its legitimacy.
The Maryland Code of Economic Development §14–301 states in subsection (b): “Only the State may enact a law or take any other action to prohibit, restrict, or regulate the testing or operation of unmanned aircraft systems in the State.” Subsection (c) "preempts the authority of a county or municipality to prohibit, restrict, or regulate the testing or operation of unmanned aircraft systems; and supersedes any existing law or ordinance of a county or municipality that prohibits, restricts, or regulates the testing or operation of unmanned aircraft systems.”
So, which one should be followed?
The county expects the county’s regulations to be followed. The state? We don’t know. The Maryland Office of the Attorney General declined to comment.
Carroll County Recreation and Parks Director Jeff Degitz said the state law was considered, but deemed to be a bit unclear. So they decided to consider drones as just another type of legitimate use of county parks, and as with other legitimate uses, he believes his department can set rules on safety.
“We would regulate the use of our athletic fields or our parks for special events and do that through permitting,” Degitz said. “The goal is to do the same things for drones.” Degitz also told us they aren’t looking to "stick it to people who invest money in a drone” and that the prohibition is in place to focus on safety and making sure there are no unintended consequences from drone use. (In fact, drone use is not permitted in five county parks nearest Carroll County Regional Airport.)
All of that makes sense, but, again, the state law “preempts the authority of a county or municipality to prohibit, restrict, or regulate the testing or operation of unmanned aircraft systems; and supersedes any existing law or ordinance of a county ...”
Tom McMahon, senior vice president of advocacy of government relations for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems, told us “local rules to regulate the airspace, such as those in Carroll County regarding drone operations, risk creating a complicated patchwork of laws that may erode, rather than enhance, safety.” He also noted that federal regulations already prohibit many of the activities Carroll County seeks to prevent.
Carroll isn’t the only county seemingly defying the state decree. Frederick and Montgomery counties also have regulations requiring permitting and Saint Mary’s County bans drones in its parks. But would any of these local regulations, such as Carroll’s, withstand a legal challenge?
Professor Michael Greenberger, the director of the University of Maryland Law School’s Center for Health and Homeland Security, told us that “technically speaking, whatever Carroll County is doing is inconsistent on a macro basis with the Maryland statute” and that if someone did challenge it, that person would have "a pretty strong argument that the Carroll County statute is violative of the terms of the state statute.”
The state law should either be followed by the counties or scrapped — preferably before someone violates a local law and files a lawsuit that could’ve been avoided.