Rowdy paragliders prompt Page city officials to take action

Page City Manager Darren Coldwell on May 10 informed Page City Council of a problem. The city received complaints from citizens about powered paragliders camping in Page. Often, new laws and regulations begin with a defining incident, an outlier or, in this case, a group of paragliders. 

The activity is not new to area residents. Paragliders are often seen sailing across sky on the outskirts of Page. They’re drawn to the area much like balloonists are every year for the Balloon Regatta. The view of Lake Powell, Horseshoe Bend and the Vermillion Cliffs from the sky is remarkable. 

Page Mayor Bill Diak introduced the topic to council members: “Approximately 30 to 40 days ago, we had some paragliders come into town that were unannounced and we were unaware of. That caused some issues with some of our citizens.”

Diak personally went to the location and spoke with the group.

“They weren't very nice people to talk to,” Diak said. “They took the position that ‘you can't do anything.’ Unfortunately, that's part of the problem. We didn't have anything that we could do.”

Diak suspects it wasn’t recreational but a commercial activity, an online business selling paragliding lessons. Members of the group were from the St. George, Utah, area.

“There was a crew of about nine that came in and parked themselves off Highway 98 for about five or six days,” Coldwell said at the council meeting. “They also came with the motorized paragliders. We had several different complaints, not only about their camping and their noise, and everything that comes along with that, but also of the paragliders going off into NPS (National Park Service) property. There was also a pretty severe accident where EMS was called.”

Coldwell later told the Chronicle, “We had an ambulance call out there. A young boy, I think he was 16, wrecked on a takeoff, and broke both ankles.” 

The most common motorized paraglider requires the pilot to wear a 45-90 lb. paramotor, essentially a motor and propeller attached to a back harness, then run approximately 10 feet to fill the sails and take off. Another version is a three- or four-wheel frame with the paramotor permanently attached. One of the common risks of the sport is getting injured by the propeller during takeoff. 

Coldwell told council he and city staff aren’t opposed to camping and paragliding on city property but have ideas on where it should happen. Currently, there are no regulations prohibiting camping or paraglider takeoff and landing in Page. Coldwell recommended establishing no camping or paragliding zones along with time limitations. 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) already has some restriction in place for powered paragliders, which they classify as ultralight vehicles. There are six classes of air space, and paragliders are generally only allowed in two of them (E and G). The air space zones factor aspects like altitude, population density, national security and air traffic. 

FAA does not require licensing or certification for ultralight vehicles if it’s intended for single-person daytime recreational use, travels less than 55 knots (about 63 mph), doesn’t exceed 5 gallons fuel capacity, and weighs less than 254 lbs. empty, excluding safety devices. They do require paragliders to avoid flying overpopulated areas and stay clear of clouds. The complete set of FAA ultralight regulations is available online (Subchapter F, Part 103). Certification and permits are only required for tandem flights. 

As powered paragliding popularity increases, restrictions will likely increase. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area sent this May 12, 2022, press release:

“Use of Powered Paragliding/Paramotor/Ultralight aircraft is now prohibited within the boundaries of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in proximity to developed and high visitor use areas. This use is also prohibited between the Glen Canyon Dam and the downstream river boundary between Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Grand Canyon National Park near Lees Ferry.

“For the definition of powered paragliding ultralight aircraft please see FAA 14 CFR Part 103 or 14 CFR Part 103. As defined, aircraft of this size, configuration, and movement are known to frighten and disturb wildlife. Use of these devices is new and therefore additional impacts remain unknown. They may possess qualities that adversely affect additional park resources that may only be revealed in the future if the use is allowed to continue and proliferate in the park. The Glen Canyon Dam is a high security area that contains vital infrastructure with hazards that encompass the area and the canyon below. Powered paragliding and ultralight aircraft are inherently dangerous to participants and other visitors. Areas of high visitor demand such as developed areas and Horseshoe Bend place visitors in undue danger in the event of an uncontrolled failure of an aircraft.”

Camping could turn into a larger problem than paragliders for the city, and on multiple fronts. 

“It's just a matter of time if we do allow extended camping in certain areas the people that have invested in these campgrounds and stuff – I mean we're going to start hearing from them,” Coldwell said. 

“The crew that's pulled over just for the night, that's on spring break and passing through, they're not a problem. They're young kids that don't have any money, and they're going to the South Rim. That wasn't the situation here. I mean, these were fifth wheels and RVs. They could have easily gone a half mile down the road at one of the RV parks.”

The paraglider group camped off AZ Highway 98, roughly 600 feet away from a residential area, built bonfires and were loud enough to prompt residents to call with complaints.

Prohibiting rough camping on city property would seem the obvious solution, but it’s more complicated than that. City Attorney Josh Smith advised council, “[We] can't ban camping entirely because you get into homelessness issues, and we have to allow because we don't have homeless shelters here. We can't prohibit people, just blanket prohibition of no camping anywhere in the city.”

Page isn’t alone. Camping on public lands is a problem for cities and established businesses across the country. To prevent urban camping, cities must provide enough shelter for all the homeless. All of them. If the shelter is full, the remaining homeless can’t be prevented from camping. There are legal precedents California and Florida based on the Eighth Amendment.

Edward J. Walterst writes in “No Way Out: Eighth Amendment Protection for Do-Or-Die Acts of the Homeless” that “the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment directly forbids communities from criminalizing certain aspects of homelessness. When cities prohibit life-sustaining conduct, they present people with an unconstitutional mandate: follow the law and die, or stay alive and risk arrest. This Comment proposes that courts must invalidate statutes that offer people no lawful choice but death, because punishing truly life-sustaining conduct is per se cruel and unusual. Thus, homeless people may, but need not resort to the status crimes doctrine.”

Coldwell is considering designating areas for camping and paraglider launching, possibly on the north side of the Colorado River where it’s more spacious and less populated. Page can also prohibit camping or launching in specific areas. The City Council would need to approve any action taken, and once approved, Page Police would have enforcement authority.

Or, as Coldwell said in the May 10 meeting, “If counsel is OK with it, we would like the opportunity to create some form of ordinance regulation, something of the sort that we can post areas for non-camping post areas for non-takeoff and landing of the paragliders just so that we have some teeth for the PD.”

Coldwell and city staff have tough, complicated task ahead of them. 

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