Cape Elizabeth may limit drone use

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CAPE ELIZABETH — The Town Council on Monday night discussed a policy that would prohibit drones on town- and school-owned properties.

Councilors also discussed Tax Assessor Clint Swett’s proposal for a senior tax relief program modeled after one in Scarborough. 

Chairwoman Jessica Sullivan said she has heard numerous concerns about safety and privacy from residents regarding the use of drones in Fort Williams Park.

Formally known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems, drones are already subject to regulation by the Federal Aviation Administration, must be registered for commercial and recreational use, and weigh no more than 55 pounds. 

Town Manager Matt Sturgis said FAA regulations would override any local government regulation, so it would be “more successful” to prohibit the use, rather than try to regulate. 

According to Town Attorney Michael Hill, the town already has the authority to restrict, since drones aren’t listed in the park’s permitted uses.

“You have the ability to say now, from this point forward, it’s not allowed and there’s protection you’d have to go down that road,” Sturgis said.

However, after speaking with town staff, Sturgis said the council should consider prohibiting drones from all town and school properties, including Gull Crest and other athletic fields, rather than just at the park.

“You want to look at it big-picture, rather than a narrow focus,” he said. 

Councilor Jamie Garvin said he had some concerns with the prohibition.

“I think there are a number of … legitimate non-police or public safety uses that we might not want to inadvertently prohibit,” Garvin said, noting commercial purposes, such as aerial photography for real estate or events. 

Sturgis said exemptions or exceptions could be considered during an upcoming workshop. 

Tax assistance

One of the council’s 2018 goals is to provide tax relief to seniors. Garvin has long been advocating for tax relief for the town’s elders and said he is excited to see it moving forward.

“The details … we can certainly finesse and nuance so that they make the most sense for this community,” he said. “But I’m highly supportive of this from a conceptual standpoint.”

Though the parameters of Swett’s plan would likely change to reflect Cape Elizabeth, the Scarborough model provides tax assistance to property owners who are at least 62 years old and have lived in town for at least 10 years. To be eligible, a resident’s annual income must not exceed $50,000 and the tax bill must be over 5 percent of their federally adjusted gross income.

According to the proposal, the median household income in Cape Elizabeth for those 65 and older is $59,700. 

In Scarborough, the maximum benefit is capped at $500 per household. The town budgeted $75,000 for the program in fiscal year 2018, but upped that to $200,000 in the proposed budget for fiscal year 2019 after 312 residents participated last year.

The estimated 2019 population in Scarborough is over 19,600, where in Cape Elizabeth, it’s under 9,500. Based on the average age of property owners, Swett said the program’s budget could be based on the assumption that around 150 residents would participate.

The council referred the proposal to a May 1 workshop, when parameters such as income limit, benefit cap and household income will be considered. The council would also need a new ordinance to support the tax relief program.

Sturgis thinks the program could be implemented this year with a $75,000 line in the fiscal year 2019 municipal budget. Since he was previously the tax assessor in Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough, he said he is familiar with the program and that it works well. 

“There’s a lot of plug-and-play, you won’t have to reinvent the wheel here,” Sturgis said. 

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or jvansaun@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

A drone’s-eye view April 8 of Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth, where the use of drones may be restricted.

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