A group of Lompoc neighbors are embroiled in a battle over what exactly constitutes personal privacy, and the city may soon be stepping into the fray.
The conflict in the south Lompoc neighborhood revolves around one resident’s use of a drone with high-definition photography and video capabilities.
Lompoc resident Dave Marston addressed the Lompoc City Council on Tuesday night to complain about one of his neighbors flying a drone close to private residences in the neighborhood.
Marston suggested that the operator is breaking state and Federal Aviation Administration regulations and could potentially be using the device to take photos or record videos of whatever is happening inside people’s homes and yards.
“(It’s) an issue of major importance to all of our residents,” Marston said to the council before lobbying the board to draft ordinances to specifically regulate the use of drones.
Travis Gil, the neighbor referred to by Marston, sees the situation differently.
Gil, who was not at Tuesday’s council meeting, said Wednesday he has broken no laws and, further, that the use of drones — by government, commercial industries and recreational users — is only going to increase and people need to accept that reality.
“This is our future,” Gil said from the kitchen table of his home, which is separated by only an alley from Marston’s house. “I respect people’s privacy, because I’m a private person myself. As long as you’re not close to their property, I don’t see a problem with it.”
Gil, who spent a decade in the Marine Corps and said he’s always been interested in aviation and photography, owns a DJI Phantom 3 drone.
The professional model of that particular drone comes equipped with a 4K video camera and allows the operator to view live HD video.
It is because of those features that Marston took issue with the drone flying near his home.
He said he and his fiancé, Vicki Cope, keep an opening at the top of the shades on their windows at home.
“On several occasions we’ve seen this guy’s drone through the opening of the shades over the street while we’re sitting in our living room watching TV,” Marston told the City Council. “If we can see him, then he can most certainly see us — and you, too.”
Marston said he approached Gil about the drone but that Gil contended Marston didn’t own the airspace and became “in-my-face confrontational,” so Marston backed off and went to the Lompoc Police Department.
Due to the relative newness of the technology and the city having no clear ordinances regarding its use, Marston said he was only able to file a report.
Gil, who said he's not the only drone operator in the neighborhood, pointed to that lack of police involvement as evidence that he is not violating any regulations.
“If I was breaking laws, the police would have told me,” he said, noting his drone is registered, as required by law, with the FAA.
Marston, however, contended laws are being broken.
Marston said he started his own digging into California and FAA laws and discovered a few codes he said are on his side.
For starters, he pointed to an FAA regulation that requires operators of model aircraft to notify airport authorities if they are within 5 miles of an airport.
All of Lompoc is within 5 miles of the Lompoc Airport.
Marston said he contacted the manager of the Lompoc Airport and was told that no one had given notice of intent to fly a drone.
Marston also referenced Assembly Bill 856, which was passed by the California Legislature last year.
That bill extends physical invasion of privacy to include “the airspace above the land of another person without permission.”
He also found a section of the state Penal Code that makes it a crime for someone to use “a periscope, telescope, binoculars, camera, motion picture camera, camcorder or mobile phone" to look into "the interior of any other area in which the occupant has a reasonable expectation of privacy.”
“A drone is the new periscope,” Marston said.
Gil, who said he was offended by the peeping Tom characterization, contended the airspace between ground level and about 400 feet is in a “gray area.”
“Nobody owns that space,” he said, noting Amazon is now delivering packages by drone and doesn’t need permission from the recipients' neighbors. “I’ve seen planes flying low over my home. Are we going to restrict those, too?”
Gil acknowledged, though, that specific guidelines would probably be best for all involved.
“These are our new toys,” he said, adding he anticipates they will be hot sellers this Christmas season. “They’re really cool and fun and great technology.
"As they become more and more popular, there’s a lot of things they’re going to be used for, like selling real estate," he said. "I think as consumers buy more, the airspace will need to be regulated.”
The Lompoc City Council, as well as Police Chief Pat Walsh, seemed to agree.
Walsh said Tuesday his department has fielded other complaints about drones and he would be willing to work with the city attorney to craft an ordinance.
Near the end of Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor Bob Lingl made a request for review of such an ordinance to be placed on a future agenda. All of the other council members supported the idea.
Marston also volunteered to help in the process and requested that other regulations be considered, including prohibiting convicted sex offenders from using drones within the city.
“While this technology is great and it has very useful purposes, it also has the potential of being used for voyeurism, sexual predators, potential burglars, etc.,” Cope, Marston's fiancé, said Wednesday.
“(It) gives you a very uneasy feeling when you are sitting on your couch watching TV at night and there's a drone outside your window recording you, or when you are swimming in your backyard with your grandchildren, or bending over working in your garden and there's a drone watching you,” Cope said.