Anti-drone message

Deer Trail, Colo., Mayor Frank Fields’ anti-drone message could be seen from Interstate 70 before it was stolen. He initially put it up as a joke, but now he’s signing off on drone-hunting licenses. (Matt Pearce / Los Angeles Times / September 20, 2013)

Wearing a black duster and a black cowboy hat, Phil Steel walked to the front of the meeting room armed with a Nerf gun and a smile.

The U.S. Army veteran was there to pitch his big idea: an ordinance that would legalize and regulate drone hunting inside Deer Trail city limits. If approved, residents could pay $25 to get a drone-hunting license; the town would pay a bounty for every drone bagged.

"Really?" someone asked sarcastically as the theme music to "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" blared during Steel's entrance. Laughter rippled through the room.

Steel had hammered out the 2,800-word ordinance in just four hours. Its key points:

When a drone flies into its airspace, Deer Trail will consider it an act of war.

You can only shoot at drones flying lower than 1,000 feet.

Unless your life is in danger, you can only fire up to three shots at a drone.

Some at the August meeting thought the drone-hunting ordinance might be a good idea. Others used words like "stupid" and "a joke" to describe a proposal that they worried might become an embarrassment.

To many, that's exactly what it has become.

Out in the loping, golden plains about an hour's drive east of Denver, this little town of lonesome homes and chain-link fences looks a lot like the other hubs that sit astride Interstate 70 as traffic streaks toward Kansas: Blink, and you miss it.

Then things in Deer Trail (population about 550) changed when the town's trustees split 3 to 3 on the ordinance, automatically kicking the proposal to the residents for a vote. In doing so, the trustees managed to garner national media attention for Deer Trail at a time when drones are poised to become a part of everyday life.

Mention the word "drone" and locals hang their heads or throw up their hands. The idea is either a money-raiser for the town, a dangerous joke, or — according to its creator — a stand against the federal government, corporations and drug dealers.

"I have declared the sovereignty and the supremacy of the airspace of my town," said Steel, 49. "This is an act of sedition, and I proudly state that."

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Just by the interstate, there used to be a big white sign sitting next to a pink tractor outside the mayor's welding shop. "No drone zone," it said, before somebody stole it in December.

The mayor said he'd put the sign up as a joke when the drone debate first started. But who's laughing anymore?

"Nobody likes humor," Frank Fields said recently of the town that he runs.

Before last year, the town was most famous for claiming to be the home of America's first rodeo in 1869; now, it's Steel's contentious proposal.

Steel's involvement in the drone ordinance has antagonized many of the town's residents, including some of those who support the measure.

"I agree with the 4th Amendment rights [argument], but I don't like him," said one resident waiting by the pump at the Deer Trail Phillips 66 gas station. She declined to give her name for fear of causing trouble.