Resident unhappy with city’s drone, claims it invaded privacy, scared daughters


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The arrow in this screengrab shot from a drone contracted by the City of Burien points to one of Shelli Park’s daughters, who shot video of it and says it flew over John White’s house.

By Jack Mayne
& Scott Schaefer

Burien resident John White is very unhappy that the City of Burien hired a contractor to fly a high-pitched drone over his private property, apparently as part of a surveying project of nearby Eagle Landing Park, an issue the Council was briefed on at the May 7 Council meeting.

At the meeting, the Council was told “the conditions on the lower hillside have progressively worsened,” and that the remaining stairs should be removed. Photos and video taken by the drone show the seriousness of the failure of the stairs.

Burien City Manager Brian Wilson said the drone operator had strict orders to not fly over White’s house, but White says two people who were in the house said the drone did fly directly over the property and a pet dog whined at the sound of its nearby, high-pitched motors.

Useful modern tools
Drones have gotten to be useful tools of business and government to relatively inexpensively capture photos and videos from the air to show where problems are that are otherwise not easily spotted.

But some drones also make a high pitched whining noise, sometimes scaring or startling people unused to the fast flying objects that often carry a miniature camera and other surveying equipment.

White said in a call to B-Town Blog Publisher Scott Schaefer that no one ever warned him or any other residents about a drone survey being conducted near or over his house near Eagle Landing Park on Tuesday, May 8.

City of Burien’s response
Wilson said the consultant was hired to take photos of the stairs and of the landslides from above the beach at Eagle Landing Park and above the park’s parking lot.

The consultant did not fly over private property to obtain the footage, Wilson said in an interview, and then later via a city response to The B-Town Blog. All photos or footage taken of private property was from a legally occupied vantage point, the city said.

Here’s a map showing the drone’s flight boundaries, as provided to White by Wilson:

Drone Video
Here’s one of the videos that was shot by the city’s hired drone:

“The City has been receiving complaints from citizens regarding the slide activity on and in the vicinity of Eagle Landing Park. Mr. White is one of these citizens,” the city said.

“Also, at the Monday, May 7, 2018 Council meeting, staff gave a presentation regarding the Eagle Landing stairs – which are in a state of significant disrepair – and reported that we are evaluating whether the stairs should be removed,” the Burien statement said. “To inform our continued evaluation of the stairs, the slide activity, and the city’s stormwater infrastructure, the city conducted an evaluation on Tuesday, May 8, 2018 by way of a drone operated and licensed by the city’s geotechnical engineering consultant.”

The city’s statement added, “there are many factors contributing to the slide activity in the area of Eagle Landing Park including groundwater historically present in the area, surface water activity in the area, wave and tidal action.”

City says White may be partly at fault
Also, the city claims that White may be partly at fault, as there has been “substantial clearing, grading, and construction activity on Mr. White’s private property without permits. The city is continuing to assess the unpermitted activity’s impact on the park and the surrounding area.”

Why the city did not inform White and other residents under the survey area is not known. Such advance information could have prevented the minor panic caused by White’s concerns over the drones’ usage to gather information.

White and his girlfriend, Shelli Park, are in China on business now, but Park’s two daughters were at the White home. Park said her daughters were “very concerned” and “frightened” about the drone.

Video of drone over White’s house
One of the daughters shot a video of the drone and made that recording available to The B-Town Blog. In that video, at around the :56-second mark, it appears that the drone is directly over White’s house as it accelerates to the east and away from his property (NOTE: you can also hear a dog whimpering, likely reacting to the drone’s sound):

“A neighbor who lives just to the north of my house heard the drone as well, and expressed concern that she thought my house was possibly being cased by a high-tech burglar,” White said.

Another neighbor heard the drone too and expressed similar concerns about privacy, he said.

Blog calls new Police Chief
After White’s call from China, Schaefer phoned newly-installed Burien Police Chief Ted Boe to find out if police knew of the incident, and Boe “quickly referred me to call Emily Inlow-Hood at the city ASAP.” Inlow-Hood is the Burien Communications Officer. It seemed strange to Schaefer that Boe would refer the call to the city rather than to the King County Sheriff’s Office media representative, Sgt. Ryan Abbott, who usually handles police department media requests.

Nevertheless, Schaefer called Inlow-Hood.

“Emily asked me where the drone was spotted, and after I told her she revealed that it was doing work on behalf of the city as part of their surveying of Eagle Landing Park. Apparently the city hired a contractor who flew the drone around John’s property,” Schaefer said.

City releases drone footage/photos
On Wednesday afternoon (May 9), the city released a link to a website with photographs and video footage taken by the drone camera (https://burienwa.box.com/s/2ulw9flni2crsco0bx6b5l090gvxl48y), which contains 73 photos and 2 videos. The videos are from one drone fly-around, as well as what appears to be footage shot as the aircraft is positioned for takeoff from the beach below. Of the 73 photos, only 4 show any coverage of the stairs at Eagle Landing Park – the rest are of John White’s property, which includes its own slide damage.

White is skeptical that the city has released everything the drone shot.

“If the city released all the footage, where’s the shot that shows Shelli’s daughter flipping off the camera while filming it?” White said.

The Blog can confirm that no such footage was released by the city.

He also says that the drone pilot/crew was controlling the craft from his beach property, as seen in the screengrab below where three workers are visible:

No regulations on drones in Burien
Burien has no city regulations on the use of drones, so what happened is most likely legal, and many consider them valuable tools for gathering information the city needs to consider whether to remove the remaining Eagle Landing Park stairs.

According to the Dronenthusiast website, there are all sorts of rules you may need to be aware of even if you are following federal regulations on them. “Unfortunately, it seems that only Seattle is where you want to be for legally flying a drone,” the drone website says, but only at specific places. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that all Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems owners follow strict regulations and laws. “All aircraft that weighs more than 0.55 pounds, or 250 grams, and less than 55 pounds, or 25 kilograms, must be registered. This also includes any added payloads, such as an onboard camera,” Dronenthusiast says.

The FAA also requires that drone pilots get a License, which stipulates that they keep aircraft in line of sight at all times, and that they must not fly within 5 miles of an airport (White’s home is approx. 5.3 miles from Sea-Tac Airport), or over humans – however, in this instance that last rule may have been violated as this aircraft allegedly flew over Shelli Park’s daughters (and dog, which can be heard whimpering in the video above).

As far as Washington state regulations, “There are currently a number of bills in circulation within the state of Washington surrounding drones” so operators must be aware of state rules, said Dronenthusiast.

City Manager won’t meet with White
White told The B-Town Blog that City Manager Brian Wilson has so far refused to meet with him to discuss the stormwater draining and landslide issues in his neighborhood.

“Let’s stop fighting and droning houses and work together to resolve these issues,” White said in an email to Wilson. “Your refusal to sit down with me will only cause massive conflict. We should not be living like this.”

White also said he has paid to have an independent geotechnical report done that contradicts the city’s claims.

He also would like the City to pass regulations on drone usage in the future – including rules that the city must abide by.

“Sending low flying drones over my house is not what our city should be involved in,” he said. “Our kids cannot sleep. We are not in Afghanistan.”

And Shelli Park is unhappy as well.

“Our taxes pay for city staff – and so basically we’re paying to be harassed!” Park added.

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