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Los Altos Hills council eyes banning drone use in preserves

Byrne Preserve
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Concerned about the safety of horses and equestrians in Byrne Preserve, above, the Los Altos Hills City Council is considering an ordinance banning remote-controlled vehicles like drones from the preserve unless the city manager’s office approves first.

When Los Altos Hills City Council members give a second look to a proposed ordinance banning drones and other remote-powered model vehicles in town open spaces, they’ll likely have to weigh conflicting recommendations from advisory committees.

Council members at their April 15 meeting unanimously agreed to introduce an amendment to the town municipal code that would prohibit model vehicles from Byrne Preserve, and they directed the Open Space and the Parks and Recreation committees to consider further limiting acceptable locations. The Open Space Committee has already expressed unanimous support for that idea. Last week, however, the Parks and Recreation Committee voted 6-1 against extending the list to the Juan Prado Mesa, O’Keefe Lane, Saddle Mountain, Rhus Ridge, Murietta Ridge and Central Drive preserves.

As the organizer of the town Pathways Run/Walk, Parks and Rec committee member Scott Vanderlip has enthusiastically embraced other residents’ offers to document the annual event with aerial video from drones. Per the committee’s suggestion, the proposed ordinance would include a provision allowing the city manager to approve such use on a case-by-case basis.

Vanderlip was among the committee members who voted against designating more locations as off-limits to model vehicles.

“I want to accommodate them in town,” he said in an email to the Town Crier sent last week. “We should. This is a great activity for adults and kids to enjoy together.”

Like many outdoor pastimes, local model vehicle use has soared during the pandemic, said Sarah Robustelli, community services supervisor. Already, the gadgets are banned at Westwind Community Barn and within the Purissima Park riding arena. As at Byrne Preserve, the concern is they could spook horses and/or the humans atop them.

Complaints from Byrne Preserve visitors in December led town staff members to erect signs instructing the pilots of model vehicles to keep them away from horses.

But without an official ordinance, there is no way to enforce rules and potentially issue citations, Robustelli wrote in a staff report.

Residents Sue Welch and Ann Duwe submitted the only two letters supplementing the April 15 council agenda item, and both women stated their opposition to model vehicles in town preserves and on paths. In addition to the potential risk of injury, they don’t believe vehicles jive with the peaceful nature of preserves.

When Councilmember Stanley Q. Mok pondered aloud where residents should be allowed to enjoy remote-controlled cars and the like, Welch responded.

“The town has no obligation to provide recreational sites for every hobbyist who wants every type of recreation,” Welch said. “We don’t need to provide a roller-skating rink. And drones are so intrusive. They are so noisy. I would strongly discourage anyone from having a designated drone area put anywhere in town. I don’t think any of you would want one within earshot of your home.”

Councilmember Lisa Schmidt agreed with Welch.

“I don’t think we need to support drones anywhere in the town,” she said.

Robustelli anticipates council members could next consider the ordinance at their May 20 meeting.

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