Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday August 14th 2018

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Into the Light

Escambia Journeys Toward Sea Turtle Ordinance
By Jeremy Morrison

When sea turtles hatch out of their eggs, they begin a perilous journey. In Escambia County, that journey is a bit more treacherous than in other parts of Florida.

Newly hatched sea turtles navigate their way into the Gulf of Mexico by the light of the moon. In the modern world, the turtles must also navigate their way through a beachscape bathed in artificial light that tempts them astray. If they manage to follow the moon to the water, the path may be blocked by a line of heavy wooden loungers left out by beachfront hotels.

Sea turtle hatchlings on local beaches encounter a rougher genesis because there is nothing on the books to accommodate them.

“There’s not a county ordinance, per se,” said Escambia County Community and Environment Director Keith Wilkins.

In many beachfront communities, local governments have enacted ordinances that strive to protect sea turtles. Many coastal locales in Florida have such rules in place.

“Escambia County is one of the very last counties in Florida that has nesting sea turtles to have an ordinance,” said Tim Day, Escambia County environmental program manager.

That could soon change. Day is currently hammering out the particulars of a local ordinance to address the hatchlings.

Right now, in its draft phase, Escambia’s sea turtle ordinance is line upon line, page after page, of fluid possibilities. Nothing is etched in stone, and many specifics are highlighted in red and up for debate.

“I’m still meeting with stakeholders,” Day said. “I expect in the next month or two we’ll have some compromises worked out.”

The draft ordinance aims to minimize the impact of man’s progress on hatching sea turtles. It seeks to restrict the output of artificial light and placement of physical obstacles on the beach.

In some ways, this emerging ordinance is on a journey almost as arduous as the hatchling turtles. Before it is enacted, the draft must navigate past beachfront business interests and the governmental process.

One of the main obstacles is money. Stakeholders—residential and commercial property owners—are not thrilled about shelling out the funds necessary to retrofit existing lighting in order to minimize the impact to the sea turtles.

Currently, county staff is working with property owners—most notably, beach hoteliers—to arrive at an ordinance that is acceptable to all parties.

“They want to know what the costs would be before they endorse it or not,” said Wilkins, adding that the county is also applying for grants to put toward private retrofits in an effort to “soften the blow.”

As it stands now, the draft ordinance outlines rules designed to protect the sea turtle hatchlings. Its language requires property owners to direct lights away from the beach and to remove obstacles; it also sets measurable standards.

The ordinance would apply to all new construction or improvements. It would require existing properties to come into compliance by 2018.

Right now, the draft is still being tweaked. After working its way through the planning board, the ordinance will come before the Escambia County Commission, most likely in January.

The ordinance will be somewhat redundant. The county already has rules in place requiring the observance of the Federal Endangered Species Act. At the state level, Florida has regulations pertaining to sea turtles specifically.

“There’s just not a lot of enforcement,” Wilkins said of the state and federal regulations.

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