A recent small-scale photo shoot on Aspen Mountain. The X Games is an example of a high-impact "film" shoot. New regulations seek to create a greater distinction between the two in the county code.
A recent small-scale photo shoot on Aspen Mountain. The X Games is an example of a high-impact \ Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Editor’s note: A version of this story was published by the Aspen Daily News on Jan. 24, 2013. Aspen Journalism and the Daily News are collaborating on coverage of Pitkin County.

The Pitkin County commissioners on Wednesday initially approved new regulations regarding the use of helicopters for events such as the Pro Challenge cycling race.

The board also approved new regulations to make it easier for “low-impact” photo and movie productions to take place without organizers having to secure a special-event permit from the county.

And the commissioners added language to the code to make it clear that small-scale photo shoots, such as taking pictures of a home for a real estate ad, do not violate county rules against commercial activity without a permit.

All of the code changes related to photo and film productions will next be reviewed by the county’s planning and zoning commission in a public hearing, and then come back to the commissioners for further review at second reading.

The approval of the code changes Wednesday came after several members of the public chided the board for making it harder to conduct film and photo shoots, apparently due to misperceptions of the county’s intentions to do the opposite.

“I think there is some misinformation out there,” said Commissioner George Newman after hearing public comments. “We are not adding regulations. We are actually deregulating some of our code.”

That’s true when it comes to low- and no-impact photo and film productions.

But when it comes to the use of helicopters, the commissioners did take steps to put new regulations in the land-use code that had otherwise been an unwritten — if long-standing — policy to deny the use of them during special events, or film or photo productions.

On the other hand, the new regulations in the code seek to define exceptions to the board’s policy of a blanket “no” to the use of helicopters as part of a special event.

So, in a sense, the new language about helicopter use could still be considered deregulatory, even though it does slightly expand the land-use code.

Pitkin County Attorney John Ely told commissioners that the new regulations for helicopter use did not in any way attempt to regulate the general use of air space over Pitkin County or infringe on the authority of the Federal Aviation Administration.

He explained that the regulations instead were meant to clarify how the county will review the use of helicopters within the context of an application to the county for a special-events permit.

The language adopted by the county commissioners regarding helicopters is as follows:

“Helicopters shall not be used for filming unless approved by the BOCC, at their discretion, under the following circumstances; a) there is clear and demonstrable marketing benefit to the community; b) the helicopter will be used for live broadcast; c) factual representation shall be provided that there will be no detrimental impact to wildlife; (and) d) safety concerns shall be adequately addressed.”

The commissioners did direct staff to find a better word for “filming” in the regulations, acknowledging that film is no longer necessary to capture digital video or still images.

The commissioners have deviated from their unwritten policy over the last two years when it came to allowing a helicopter to follow the Pro Challenge cycling race as it came in or out of Aspen.

Given that, the commissioners felt they owed it to the public to codify when helicopters would be allowed.

And the new rules for helicopters were drafted with the intent to approve them for coverage of the bike race again this year.

The board decided not to specifically address the use of drones, or more correctly, “unmanned aerial vehicles,” to capture images as part of an event or production. Instead, they agreed with a staff recommendation to treat them, for now, the same as helicopters.

In regard to “low-impact” productions, the new regulations allow someone to avoid applying for a permit if no more than five vehicles and 15 people are involved in the production; if the entire production takes place on private property; if the production lasts for no more than two days; and a few other limitations.

The new rules require that a producer give the county notice of such a production at least 10 working days in advance and send in enough details to allow a staff person to make a decision.

During the process of developing the rules for “low-impact” productions, Commissioner Rob Ittner said the county also should make it clear that very small-scale productions also were exempt from county regulations.

He said, for example, that hiring a photographer to take pictures of his restaurant for commercial purposes should not require a permit, nor should a real estate broker need a permit to get a photo of a house.

The commissioners acknowledged that practically no one has ever applied for such a permit, but they also agreed with Ittner that it should be clear that they do not have to.

While commissioners asked staff to come up with final language on such productions, the board’s intent is to waive the need for a permit for a “no-impact” production which involves only two vehicles and doesn’t last for more than a day.

Greg Poschman, a director and cameraman with Aspen Moving Media Inc., told the commissioners that Pitkin County has a reputation for being one of the hardest places to shoot in the country and that the county was missing out on a lot of positive public relations exposure as a result.

“I’ve had many, many clients go away,” Poschman said.

He urged the commissioners to table their discussion of the new regulations and to form a committee of local filmmakers and others to discuss “something that works.”

Some commissioners noted during the meeting they actually were responding to the concerns of producers by defining “low-impact” productions that would no longer require a special-use permit.

The commissioners also said they were open to a local committee to review the regulations, but warned that could take a serious commitment of time by citizens. And in the meantime, they wanted to adopt the new, less-onerous rules.

Commissioner Michael Owsley also defended the county’s overall restrictions on productions, saying there had been instances in the past of poorly managed productions that had left local citizens frustrated.

“To avoid exploitation, we have to have some degree of regulation,” Owsley said.

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...