The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has appealed a recent National Transportation Safety Board administrative decision, Administrator v. Pirker, NTSB Docket CP-217, July 18, 2013, in which Administrative Law Judge Patrick Geraghty ruled that FAA had no regulatory authority when it fined the operator of an Unmanned Aircraft System (“UAS”) (otherwise known as “drone”) used for commercial photography, for operating a UAS at an altitude below that approved for commercial manned aircraft.  It would do well for developers, manufacturers and operators of UAS to listen carefully to FAA’s views because the decision, while preliminary, and subject to appeal through many levels of the Federal Court system, has opened the proverbial Pandora’s Box in the relationship of manned and unmanned aircraft and their joint, or separate regulatory frameworks. 

First, it is important for the UAS community to recognize that, while Administrative Law Judge Geraghty found an absence of regulatory authority in the FAA, the Opinion did not acknowledge the seminal issue of “the federal government’s pervasive regulation of aircraft, airspace and aviation safety,” see, Montalvo v. Spirit Airlines, 508 F.3d 464, 472-74 (9th Cir. 2007).  That pervasive control arises under the Federal Aviation Act, 49 U.S.C. § 40101 in which Congress expressly granted to the Secretary of Transportation, through his/her designee, the FAA, the tasks of, among other things, “controlling the use of the navigable airspace and regulating civil and military operations in that airspace in the interest of the safety and efficiency of both . . .,” 49 U.S.C. § 40101(d)(4), as well as “encouraging and developing civil aeronautics, including new aviation technology.”  49 U.S.C. § 40101(d)(3).  That express assignment of responsibility alone gives FAA “skin in the game.” 

FAA’s response more specifically addresses what it believes to be misapprehensions about the extent of its power and authority. 
 


Continue Reading FAA Pushes Back Against Advocates of Unregulated Drone Operations

In an exercise of regulatory zeal, El Paso County, Colorado (“County”) now requires that City owned Colorado Springs Airport (“Airport”) obtain a permit from the County for any changes in airport physical development or operations that might affect nearby property located in the County. 

Purportedly under the authority of the Colorado Areas and Activities of State Interest Act, § 24-65-101, et seq., the Board of County Commissioners (“Board”) “has specific authority to consider and designate matters of state interest . . . and to adopt guidelines and regulations for administration of areas and activities of state interest. . .”  Pursuant to that purported authority, by Resolution No. 13-267, June 6, 2013, and recorded at Reception No. 213077196 of the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder’s Office, “the Board designated certain areas and activities of state interest” and established “a permit process for development in certain areas of state interest,” Resolution No. 13-530, Resolution Amending Guidelines and Regulations for Areas and Activities of State Interest of El Paso County, and designating additional matters of state interest.  December 17, 2013.  The new areas of state interest designated in the Resolution include: “site selection and expansion of airports,” Resolution, p. 3, § 1.  The County has interpreted the permit process to extend to “runway extension, noise and other impacts that might affect property owners . . .,” Gazette, January 17, 2014, quoting Mark Gebhart, Deputy Director of County Development Services Department. 

Therein lies the rub. 
 


Continue Reading El Paso County Seeks Control Over Colorado Springs Airport

Trucking industry challenges to the Port of Los Angeles’ pollution rules for trucks carrying cargo to and from the Port (“Clean Truck Program”) have hit the United States Supreme Court.  The Court has agreed to accept certiorari to decide whether the rules that require, among other things, that trucking firms enter into agreements with the Port Authority of Los Angeles (“Port Authority”) to govern regular maintenance of trucks, off-street parking, and posting of identifying information are an unconstitutional interference with interstate commerce.  Perhaps most contentious is the requirement that, ultimately, all truck operators must become employees of trucking companies, rather than acting as independent contractors. 

The American Trucking Association originally challenged the Clean Truck Program on the grounds of a Federal law deregulating and preempting local authority “related to a price, route, or service of any motor carrier.”  49 U.S.C. § 14501(c)(1).  Although the Port Authority has had surprising success in the lower courts thus far, the preemption provision relied upon by the trucking industry bears a substantial similarity, even identity, with the provisions in the Airline Deregulation Act, 49 U.S.C. § 40101, et seq. (“ADA”), which has rarely been successfully challenged.
 


Continue Reading Challenges to the Port of Los Angeles’ Truck Pollution Limits to be Heard at the Supreme Court

On July 26, 2012, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania overturned a Pennsylvania statute preempting the right of local jurisdictions to impose land use restrictions on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” within their boundaries.  Unlike courts in the States of Ohio and Colorado, the court in Robinson Township v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, et al., 2012 WL 3030277 (2012) held that the Pennsylvania statute violates the “basic precept that ‘land use restrictions designate districts in which only compatible uses are allowed and incompatible uses are excluded.’”  Id. at 15, quoting City of Edmonds v. Oxford House, Inc., 514 U.S. 725, 732-33 (1995).  Fracking involves the high pressure injection of water and sand carrying certain chemicals into rocks in which is concealed deposits of oil and gas.  Residents near fracking sites have complained of, among other things, pollution of the underground water supply, and increasing instability and subsidence of structures undermined by the process.  Supporters of the Pennsylvania law claimed that it provides the uniformity of regulation necessary for the successful continuation of Pennsylvania’s relatively new and profitable fracking industry.  Critics, however, take the position that removing local restrictions on the fracking would be to undermine decades of rational development, and open the door to the “pig in the parlor” to which the Supreme Court referred in upholding local zoning originally in Euclid v. Ambler, 272 U.S. 365 (1926).

The implication of these differences ranges far beyond Pennsylvania, because, among other reasons, the positions taken over local regulation of fracking do not differ notably from those taken with respect to local regulation of airport impacts.
 


Continue Reading Local Land Use Restrictions on Hydraulic Fracturing Upheld in Pennsylvania

A long simmering point of contention between State and Federal governments in the City of San Diego is the fate of the property now occupied by the United States Navy’s Fleet Antisubmarine Warfare Training Center in San Diego Bay.  The issue is whether the Federal government, having decided that a 50 year extension of its existing lease over the property is not long enough, can extinguish California’s public tidelands trust rights, granted to the State upon its admission to statehood in 1850, through condemnation of 27.54 filled acres in perpetuity; or whether, as the State claims, California’s public trust rights reemerge if the property is subsequently sold to a private party.  The question is of general importance, not only because many states hold public tidelands in trust, but also because the issue represents a test of the scope of the supremacy clause of the United States Constitution, and the doctrine of federal preemption that arises from it.  On June 14, 2012, the Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals decided the question in United States of America v. 32.42 Acres of Land, No. 10-56568, D.C. No. 3:05-CV-01137-DMS-WMC (“California Lands”).


Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Upholds Federal Preemption of State Tidelands

On March 20, 2012, in a far reaching opinion, the California Appellate Court for the Second District incurred into the territory usually occupied by the Federal Courts of Appeals, by holding that Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) safety standards, published in FAA Advisory Circular 150/5300-13 (“Advisory Circular”) do not preempt state tort law on the standard of care applicable to utilization of an airport’s “Runway Protection Zone” (“RPZ”). 

The case, Sierra Pacific Holdings, Inc. v. County of Ventura, 2012 WL 920322 (Cal.App.2 Dist.)), concerns damage to an aircraft owned by Sierra Pacific Holdings, Inc. (“Sierra”), allegedly caused by a barrier erected within the RPZ at Camarillo Municipal Airport.  The airport, owned and operated by Ventura County (“County”), erected the barrier for the apparent purpose of preventing runway incursions by police vehicles leasing space in part of the RPZ at the airport.  The trial court upheld the County’s motion in limine to exclude evidence of state safety standards relating to “airport design and construction,” on the ground that Federal standards in the Advisory Circular preempt state tort law on the standard of care.  The trial court’s holding was based on the Federal government’s “implied preemption” of safety standards at airports, and, thus, the foreclosure of Sierra’s negligence action based on a dangerous condition of public property under state tort law.  Cal. Gov. Code § 835.  The Appellate Court reversed on the ground that “Congress has not enacted an express preemption provision for FAA safety standards” and, thus, if preemption exists, it must be implied.  The Appellate Court’s decision is flawed for at least two reasons. 
 


Continue Reading A California Appellate Court Puts a Fence Around Federal Preemption of Airport Safety Standards