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From the frontier: Waldron declares itself 'drone-free zone', lobbies County Council to follow suit

Despite its preeminence in the aerospace industry, Washington is not among the six states recently selected by the Federal Aviation Administration to develop test sites for drones.

Which will probably come as welcome news for almost everyone living on Waldron Island.

At a community meeting in November, residents of the sixth-largest island in San Juan County voted in overwhelming numbers to declare Waldron a "drone-free zone." Of the 20 people in attendance at the Nov. 9 meeting, the declaration was ratified by 16, rejected by two, and two abstained from voting.

A statement? You bet, but it's not one without precedent, according to Ryan Drum, community meeting chairman.

"Our community voted in the majority at a monthly community meeting to declare ourselves a drone-free zone, much as we declared ourselves a nuclear-free zone in 1984, as a statement to the U.S. government condemning the use of military drones to kill innocent civilians in other countries, and other unethical drone use," Drum said. "We hope that by speaking out, we will encourage other communities to speak out against the use of drones in ways that do not support the health and well-being of members of a community."

In reality, the resolution approved by the county commission in 1984 declared San Juan County to be a "nuclear weapons-free zone," — not just nuclear-free — making it unlawful for any person, business or governmental agency to possess, use, test, deploy or store nuclear weapons, or to manufacture components for nuclear weapons, and gave local authorities broad powers to enforce the law in the event of a violation.

Deputy Criminal Prosecutor Charlie Silverman said that he cannot recall a single a case involving the nuclear weapons-free zone in the nearly 30 years that the ordinance has been on the books. But unlike nuclear weapons, which could be viewed as a tangible threat to public safety, Silverman doubts the county would have jurisdiction to regulate what comes and goes in the airspace above its borders.

Still, the residents of Waldron didn't simply stop at their shore, but also sent a letter to the County Council on Dec. 4, asking that the council follow suit by declaring the county to be a drone-free zone as well. Petitions in support of the declaration were to follow, after a sufficient number of signatures were collected.

"We have two petitions, one's posted at the general store, and both are about three-quarters full," community meeting Secretary Caroline Mills said in mid-December.

Alaska, New York and Texas are among the six states chosen by the FAA to create test sites for what may will lead to an expanded use of drones for commercial, security and research interests in the U.S. While commercial use of drones is currently prohibited by the FAA, the agency is seeking to develop guidelines for commercial purposes and, according to the Associated Press, projects that as many as 7,500 commercial drones could be operating in U.S. airspace as soon as five years from the point they gain access to the skies across the country.

Drum said the drone-free-zone declaration is intended to signify the community's displeasure and frustration with the expanded use of unmanned aircraft for military purposes and for domestic surveillance as well, and with the anti-democratic policies that they represent. Especially when, he added, congressional leaders are making cuts to beneficial public programs, like education, research and unemployment benefits.

"There's no net-gain with the amount we're spending on defense and the military," he said. "It's bizarre what they're doing with taxpayers money."

County Councilman Rick Hughes of Orcas Island, whose District 2 boundaries include Waldron, read aloud the letter from Waldron to the council at a mid-December meeting. Like Silverman, Hughes doubts the county has jurisdiction over its airspace does not foresee any attempt by the council to legislate a drone-free zone.

Still, Hughes said that he wanted to make sure that the sentiments of his constituents were heard.

"I have huge respect for the Waldron community, but we can only do what our mandate allows us to do," he said.

 

Community Events, April 2014

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