Spotlight on Zoning Practice

Can You Zone Drone Use?

The answer depends on what you mean by zoning. Houston famously does not have zoning, but it does have land-use and development regulations that, in certain circumstances, produce zoning-like results. Drone delivery pilot programs are active in several U.S. communities already, and McKinsey notes that (with favorable regulatory conditions) drone delivery could soon be cost-competitive with conventional modes.

In the April issue of Zoning Practice, "Drone Zoning: Urban Planning's Next Frontier?" Troy Rule explores barriers and opportunities to apply zoning concepts to local drone-use regulations. Federal and, in some places, state preemption complicates local efforts to regulate the use of drones. Yet, Rule suggests at least three potential types of regulations for planners to explore with the communities they serve.

Regulating Launches and Landings

The first type of regulation is conventional zoning. The rule says traditional use-based zoning regulations can specify permissible locations for drone launches and landings. While conventional zoning doesn't help with drones in flight, limiting where commercial drone operators can site their facilities could help protect sensitive land uses from the potentially annoying buzz of frequent takeoffs and landings. And it would likely shield these users from frequent low-altitude overflights.

As Rule notes, some communities are already using this approach. For example, College Park, Georgia, defines and regulates "unmanned aircraft system dispatch and delivery center" as a distinct use.

Establishing No-Fly Zones

The second type of regulation is restricting drone flights within a certain radius of incompatible land uses or facilities. Several states have laws for this already, as do some cities.

According to Rule, this approach is analogous to pre-zoning regulations that prohibited siting noxious, or otherwise undesirable, uses near residences or schools. If more communities adopted radius-based restrictions around places of public assembly, schools, or parks, it could make it easier for federal and state officials and courts to accept the legitimacy of more nuanced drone-use regulations.

Zoning Drone Use

The final type of regulation is a speculative new form of zoning that focuses on drones in flight. Rule's idea is to apply conventional zoning concepts to drones in low airspace. In this way, communities could establish different drone-use zones based on the permissible diversity and intensity of drone operations and activities.

While the idea remains untested, Rule notes that, technologically, it would be quite easy to implement. Once adopted, drone-delivery operators could download local drone-use zoning restrictions to onboard systems, thus automating routine administration and enforcement.

Each issue of Zoning Practice provides practical guidance for planners and land-use attorneys drafting or administering local land-use and development regulations. An annual subscription to ZP includes access to the complete archive of previous issues.

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About the Author
David Morley, AICP, is a research program and QA manager with APA and editor of Zoning Practice.

April 12, 2023

By David Morley, AICP