The use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or drones, by the Haines Borough has raised concerns about privacy and local government overreach. At an assembly meeting Tuesday, residents and representatives pushed back on the use of the technology as a routine tool for government.
“Some of us moved up here to get away from government encroachment in our lives,” said Haines resident Judy Rogers. “We just want to live our lives in peace and be left alone. We don’t want to have to worry about a government with a drone looking over our shoulders, listening to what we have to say.”
Rogers wasn’t alone in her opposition to the local government’s use of drones. Ryan Cook also spoke out at the meeting.
“I think we’re going to be treading on really thin water here if we start messing with this stuff,” said Cook. “It’s a huge invasion of privacy.”
Here’s why the issue came up now. Recently, Borough Manager Debra Schnabel employed the use of a drone to help enforce a land use issue. A lot of people weren’t happy about that.
Schnabel said she wanted to address the issue with an administrative policy.
“And as a manager I felt it was a responsibility to address that by getting in front of the issue and just saying — oh we should have a policy for how we would pursue – to guide the administration if we ever had a need or desire to employ drones in the future,” said Schnabel.
Schnabel wanted to be clear – she doesn’t want to change borough code or establish a drone use program at the borough.
The policy wouldn’t dictate how Haines residents can use the crafts. It would only guide the borough administration’s use of the technology.
Schnabel says she sees drones as a tool that could be used for a variety of reasons. The policy includes search and rescue and gathering evidence and documentation after crimes and accidents.
Schnabel’s draft policy also points to possible drone use for helping people like engineers, land surveyors and land use planners gain aerial perspective. It also names assisting incident command staff and first responders as a potential use.
Resident Mike Denker is a commercial pilot who owns and has operated drones. He said he thinks the policy could get the borough into legal trouble.
“I believe the potential legal exposure for a misadventure into this frontier would far exceed any public benefit the policy offers at this time,” said Denker. “I would urge you to slow down, put this policy to committee and let it be fully vetted.”
The assembly didn’t have a whole lot of love for it either, questioning whether a policy is necessary – and whether the borough should be using drones as a tool at all.
Assemblyman Tom Morphet suggested sending the document to committee.
Brenda Josephson said it should just be taken off the table.
“I think it would be better to just shelve the drone policy,” said Josephson. “The policy is we don’t use drones.”
Sean Maidy said they shouldn’t discount the use of the technology. But, he said it should only be used with the permission of landowners.
“I would move that we pass an ordinance to only use drones with the express written permission and presence of the landowner, who also gets copies of any pictures taken,” said Maidy.
Morphet said he could see drones being useful for search and rescue and public safety emergencies. But he questioned whether a borough administrative policy is necessary for these uses.
“I think in extreme situations we might want to use a drone when other remedies have failed,” said Morphet. “I’m not convinced that there’s never a situation where a drone would be advisable. I think it obviously should be a very last resort remedy.”
The assembly did not move the policy forward.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to say Manager Schnabel ’employed the use of’ a drone, to better reflect the fact that she did not operate the drone herself.