Operators of Small Unmanned Aircraft Uses for Recreational Purposes Will Soon Face Regulation

On or about November 16, 2017, the United States Senate acted speedily to pass the “National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018,” H.R. 2810 (“Defense Reauthorization Act”), originally introduced in January of 2017, and now awaiting signing by President Trump.  

The Senate’s motivation is not obscure, where it sets forth, among other things, guidelines for “Collaboration Between Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Defense on Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” or UAS, H.R. 2810, § 1092.  Most notably, that section re-imposes rules originally imposed on the operators of small, unmanned aircraft, weighing between .55 and 55 pounds, used for recreational purposes (“model” aircraft).  Those rules were set aside by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in May, 2017, in the published opinion Taylor v. Huerta, 856 F.3d 1089, 1093 (D.C. Cir. 2017), on the ground that the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Pub. L. No. 112-95 (“FMRA”) specifically prohibits FAA from promulgating “any rule or regulation regarding model aircraft.”  Id. at § 336(a).  
 
Congress has now enacted a revision to FMRA’s prohibition, and thrown model aircraft back into the regulatory arena.  

Specifically, the Defense Authorization Act reinstates the original “mandatory FAA regulations,” governing all model aircraft of the specified sizes, and requiring operators to register with FAA, i.e., provide their names, physical mailing and e-mail addresses, and any other information FAA chooses to require.  Registration and Marking Requirements for Small Unmanned Aircraft, 80 Fed.Reg. 78,594 (December 16, 2015), at 78,595-96.  In addition, the FAA’s original 2015 registration rule also created an online platform for registration, established a $5.00 per individual registration fee, set compliance deadlines, and required all small unmanned aircraft to display a unique identifier number issued by the FAA.  Perhaps most onerous are the penalties faced by model aircraft owners who do not register which include civil or criminal monetary penalties and up to three years imprisonment.  Id. at 78,630.  

Other rules, including the requirement that both commercial and recreational drones stay below 400 feet above ground level, and notify an airport if intending to fly within five miles, remained in full force and effect during the period of suspension of the vast bulk of the rule, as “tied to safety.”  See Taylor, supra, 856 F.3d at 1093, quoting FMRA § 336(b).  
 
In summary, the freedom from oversight that recreational drone operators have enjoyed until now has been significantly limited through Congressional reconsideration of FAA’s limitations on the operation of model aircraft.  In reality, the restoration of the FAA rule enabled by the Defense Authorization Act, while burdensome, may serve to further enhance the safety of both UAS and conventional aircraft operations in the skies quickly filling with both. 

Land Trade and Airport Expansion Expected to Put Mammoth Mountain on "Must Ski" Map

Usually regarded as a local ski area for ski buffs in Northern and Southern California, to which it is readily accessible by car, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (“MMSA”) is preparing to come into the 21st Century with a new lodge, updated lifts, and, perhaps most important to proponents of the development, an expanded airport.  The expected transformation will be accomplished by the December 12, 2014 passage of the National Defense Authorization Act to which was attached an amendment specifically targeted at the MMSA.  The amendment provides for a land trade of over 1,500 acres of public and private property in proximate counties, for approximately 21 acres of United States Forest Service (“USFS”) land surrounding Mammoth Mountain Inn, which is currently leasing that property as the center of ski operations of the MMSA.  In addition, the Bill allows for a “cash equalization option” to facilitate the exchange, by which MMSA can make up any deficiency in the value of the property conveyed to the USFS with a cash equivalent.  
 
Most important in MMSA’s view is the expansion of the airport.  

In August, 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) approved a new Airport Layout Plan (“ALP”) for the Mammoth Yosemite Airport (“Airport”) which includes proposed runway and associated parallel taxiway extensions, land acquisition for those improvements, as well as a terminal expansion.  MMSA believes that “the combination of the Mammoth Mountain land trade and the FAA approval of an expanded commercial airport in Mammoth Lakes is a game changer. . .,” “now, for the first time, the mountain owns the land it resides on and can make improvements it can own.  Plus the new airport will allow for flights from around the country.”

Environmental groups, not unexpectedly, deplore the new events.  Mammoth Mountain is located on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, surrounded by valuable natural resources, including the Owens and Walker Rivers, which are home to a variety of species fast losing habitat elsewhere.  The debate over the expansion will be more clearly articulated during the environmental review process for the land exchange, pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321, et seq. (“NEPA”), which will start upon the signing of the Bill authorizing the land exchange.  
 
Moreover, the FAA’s approval of the ALP was based on the satisfaction of certain conditions including that: (1) the proposed runway, taxiway extensions and land acquisition are not approved for short term developments; (2) FAA approve a terminal study that includes acceptable forecasts for use of the terminal; and (3) all development must comply with NEPA.  Therefore, development depends not only on the success of the contemplated land purchases, but also upon satisfaction of environmental requirements.  In California, those requirements involve not only NEPA, but also the California Environmental Quality Act, Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 21000, et seq. (“CEQA”) as well, with its much more rigorous analytic requirements.
 
In summary, although the land trade and associated airport expansion may be seen as a long term benefit to real estate development and the skiing public from outside California, the environmental controversy over the protection of the Eastern Sierra Wilderness will rage for many years to come.