Ah, spring. Flowers are blooming, birds are chirping, and the sound of power saws, stone cutters and earth moving equipment fills the air. This country is in the midst of a construction boom, and more homeowners than ever before are undertaking home improvement projects. In community associations, these improvements usually require some type of architectural approval to make certain that, once constructed, the new pool, patio or pergola will be aesthetically pleasing and harmonious with surrounding structures. The process is supposed to start with the owner submitting an architectural request, but sometimes owners don’t know or care to do so. If the community has small lots with highly visible yards, it may be easy to see that a construction process has begun, and the owner can be reminded of their obligation. But what about large, private lots, where an owner can start and finish an unapproved project with no board or ARC member the wiser? This scenario has prompted more than one board to wonder: can we use drones to surveil the community and look for violations?
This blog is not intended to cover the legalities of individuals wishing to fly drones for personal and recreational use. That is covered in two prior blogs, linked here and here. Instead, this blog is designed to educate boards of directors on the legal and practical risks that can arise from use of drones to hunt for violations over private property.
In North Carolina, it is illegal for someone to operate a drone to conduct surveillance of a person or dwelling occupied by a person and that dwelling’s curtilage without the person’s consent, of private real property without the consent of the owner, easement holder, or lessee of the property, or to photograph an individual, without the individual’s consent, for the purpose of publishing or otherwise publicly disseminating the photograph. N.C. Gen. Stat. 15A-300.1. There may be very legitimate reasons to use a drone to look at common areas or amenities, but usage of drones to look at private property without a court order is almost certainly illegal and to be avoided.
Drones can also be dangerous, particularly when operated by an inexperienced pilot. Anyone who has tried to navigate a small drone on their own property knows that they can get blown afar or away, and depending on their size they can cause damage to persons or property when they fall. An association operating a drone could be liable for injury caused by a falling drone, so should proceed carefully, particularly around busy areas or in windy conditions.
And, perhaps more than anything else, drones may want to be avoided because of the risk that they will be seen as delving into the private business of people in inappropriate ways. Unless they are a celebrity, residents likely expect to be free from surveillance on their own property. There is simply something different about a management company conducting planned inspections from a vehicle in a public road, than a drone flying over a home and photographing people and property in the yard. This may change in the future, but for now there is still too much of a rejection of this type of “Big Brother” oversight in most parts of the US to make this an attractive enforcement option.
If you have questions about this or any other community association related matter, please contact one of our North Carolina attorneys in Charlotte, Greensboro, Wilmington or the Triangle, or our South Carolina attorneys in Greenville and Columbia.