Town Meetings in Amherst, Leverett to vote on resolutions restricting drones

Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Town Meetings in Amherst and Leverett will consider resolutions calling on the federal government to end the use of drones for assassinations on foreign soil and to enact regulations on the use of the unmanned aircraft in the United States.

However, the Amherst Select Board does not favor the measure in that town, which also aims to protect private airspace. Board members Wednesday voted unanimously against the article that will appear on the April 28 warrant.

Select Board member James Wald called the petition a mishmash of different ideas, some related to federal jurisdiction and others that are local.

“I’m still not comfortable with our town having a foreign policy when our (federal) government doesn’t even have one,” Wald said.

Board member Connie Kruger said she is not yet ready to weigh in on where federal and local rights begin and end, and like Wald expressed worry that the article includes multiple concepts. “This looks like it’s merging two sets of issues,” Kruger said.

Frank Gatti, a Town Meeting member from Precinct 8 and the lead petitioner in Amherst, said the drone resolution would be a means for the town to express concern about the U.S. government killing people in Pakistan and Yemen. It would ask U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey and U.S. Rep. James McGovern to bring forward legislation “to end the practice of extrajudicial killing by armed drone aircraft” by withholding money for that purpose, and “to make restitution for injuries, fatalities and environmental damage resulting from the actions of the United States government, the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, allied nations and/or its private contractors.”

Gatti said it appears that members of the executive branch are having weekly meetings to consider a list of people to assassinate. “That’s a pretty far departure from the civic lessons we were taught in high school,” he said.

The second aspect of the article is to ensure that drones stay at least 500 feet above private properties unless otherwise authorized by town officials.

The article states that “no agency of the town of Amherst, nor any agents under contract with the town, will operate drones in the immediate airspace over Amherst in a manner that violates the constitutional rights of its residents.”

The article before the Town Meeting in Leverett contains identical language.

Gatti said drones flying over homes to deliver packages or for other purposes are a worry.

“I’m still concerned about privacy and having a drone in my yard,” Gatti said, adding that it is important for the town to assert its interest in this issue.

According to Beth Adams, a Leverett resident and co-author of the measure, the resolution was inspired by one passed in Northampton last summer. “We think it is important for the public to be informed about the rule-making going on without any public input,” Adams said.

Amherst Select Board member Andy Steinberg said the article could restrict uses of drones that may benefit Amherst, citing Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping, tracking for environmental problems and fire monitoring as possible uses of drones that would be supported by residents.

The resolution in Leverett, which was authored by a group called Pioneer Valley Citizens Concerned About Drones, received 19 signatures — nearly double the number required to get an article on the warrant. It will be voted on close to the end of the meeting, which begins at 9 a.m. May 3, according to Town Clerk Lisa Stratford.

Pioneer Valley Citizens Concerned About Drones has helped organize the filming of interviews on Amherst Media between 3 and 5 p.m. April 29. They will feature drone-control activists Nick Mottern, who runs the website Knowdrones.com, Paki Wieland, a Northampton resident and activist, and Paul Voss, an associate professor of engineering at Smith College who is concerned about how drones relate to the Air Commerce Act of 1926.

After the interviews, a “Know Drones Public Forum” sponsored by the Amherst Human Rights Commission will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Amherst Regional Middle School, 170 Chestnut St. Jeff Napolitano of the American Friends Service Committee in Northampton will speak, in addition to Mottern, Wieland, Voss and Gatti. Both events are free and open to the public.

Adams said she hopes more people will sign up to join the group at the forum.

“We think people need to be educated about this topic, and we hope other communities will follow our example and pass resolutions that will protect their communities from potential violations before the (Federal Aviation Administration) changes the rules,” Adams said.