Federal Judge Strikes Down Newton, MA Drone Ordinance on Preemption Grounds

Today, a federal judge struck down a Newton, Massachusetts, ordinance regulating drone operations in the city, holding that the ordinance was preempted based on Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) regulations and federal statutes. Saying the ordinance “essentially constitutes a wholesale ban on drone use” and was an “interven[tion] in the FAA’s careful regulation of aircraft safety,” District Judge William G. Young reaffirmed the FAA’s broad jurisdiction over drones (also known as unmanned aircraft systems or “UAS”) in national airspace.

In 2015, the Newton City Council enacted an ordinance regulating drones in the city limits. Amongst other actions, the ordinance required all drone owners to register with the City and prohibited operations below 400 feet over private property without owner approval, operations beyond visual line of sight (“BVLOS”), and operations over Newton property without prior permission.  The Council based its ordinance on the privacy interests of its citizens, saying the ordinance was designed to protect “the privacy of residents throughout the City,” and to “prevent nuisances and other disturbances of the enjoyment of both public and private space.” Furthermore, the City stated that the ordinance was designed to be read and interpreted “in harmony with all relevant [FAA] rules and regulations.”

Michael Singer, a Newton resident and certificated UAS pilot, argued that four provisions of the local law were preempted by federal law because the ordinance attempts to regulate an almost exclusively federal area of law in conflict with Congress’s purpose. Newton defended the ordinance, arguing that privacy is an area of the law traditionally reserved for the states and that the ordinance can be read in harmony with federal aviation laws and regulations.

Judge Young’s order reviewed precedent on FAA preemption, citing the federal government’s “exclusive sovereignty of airspace” and how “courts generally recognize that Congress extensively controls much of the [aviation] field.” The court reaffirmed that the states have a very narrow window in which they can regulate the field of aviation.

The Court held that four of the ordinance’s provisions were preempted, based on interpretations of FAA regulations and Congressional intent related to drones. Specifically, overturning Newton’s registration requirement, Judge Young referenced how the FAA “explicitly has indicated its intent to be the exclusive regulatory authority for registration of pilotless aircraft.”  On operating restrictions, the judge determined that the City’s prohibitions on flights over both public and private property “work in tandem … to create an essential ban on drone use within the limits of Newton”—which is inconsistent with Congress tasking the FAA to “develop a comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system.” Finally, on BVLOS operations, the judge held that the City could not regulate a method of operating drones, because this is an aviation safety issue and that “intervening in the FAA’s careful regulation of aircraft safety cannot stand.”

Singer v. Newton is an important case affirming the FAA’s preemptive authority over local drone regulation. As drones have become increasingly common throughout the country, local and state governments have passed laws regulating them, although the FAA has consistently maintained its broad authority to regulate airspace and aircraft operations.  As the jurisprudence of drone law continues to develop, we will see where—if anywhere—local governments can regulate in light of the federal government’s extensive control over regulation.  As referenced in a previous article, a bipartisan group in Congress has introduced legislation to authorize additional state and local control over UAS operations.