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New policy would limit drone flying to soccer park

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WAKE FOREST — Drone lovers in Wake Forest may have to follow new, stricter rules when flying their craft at town parks.

A new policy under consideration by the town would only allow drones at Smith Creek Soccer Center on Heritage Lake Road, and would bar them from other town parks. 

The rules would also impose weight and speed restrictions on allowed drones and limit the height and time of day at which drones could fly. 

The Wake Forest Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources presented the board of commissioners with the proposed policy at the board's work session earlier this month.

Recently, the popularity of drones in Wake Forest has exploded, according to parks director Ruben Wall. This has resulted in an uptick of complaints from people in public parks.

“We're getting a lot of complaints. People are calling the police and asking them if they can do this, and we don't have a policy,” Wall said at the meeting. “We're trying to catch up. There were no drones when a lot of our parks were built.”

People using the parks have called the police with concerns they are being recorded or with complaints that the drones were noisy and interfering with people's enjoyment of the parks, Wall said.

Currently, drones can be flown in any park at any height. 

The new policy would require drones flown at the Smith Creek Soccer Center be more than 0.88 pounds. Drones more than 15 pounds, or capable of speeds more than 69 mph, must first get permission from the town. 

Drones won’t be allowed during games, practices, special events and town-sponsored activities. 

People also can’t fly drones while under the influence of alcohol. Drones won’t be allowed to take off or land in parks outside of park hours and the policy bars harassing wildlife or the public with the aircraft. 

The new policy also gives the parks department the flexibility to hold a drone day or other event at the park.

Park staff worked with the Wake Forest Fire Department to make sure the rules would not limit the department's ability to complete search-and-rescue operations. The fire department also requested that drones not be allowed to fly over large events.

Commissioner Adam Wright asked why E. Carroll Joyner Park and J.B. Flaherty Park were left out of the policy. 

The Recreation Advisory Board suggested limiting drones to the soccer center because Joyner Park has movie nights and concerts, which could be interrupted by drones, while Flaherty Park has a lot of families who do not want photography of their children, said Chair Shinica Thomas.

Wright recommended some technical changes to the policy, including making sure drone operators could wait until it is safe to land their craft if ordered to do so. Wright worried that saying they would land immediately would cause some operators to land where it was not safe.

Commissioner Liz Simpers felt the policy was a good first step, but it needed to be fluid so the policy could be revised as technology changes. The policy says it will be reviewed every three years, but Thomas said the board was willing to review it more than that. 

Simpers suggested making the review annual.

The policy has not yet been approved by the board but is expected to go into effect with the changes June 1.