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Thursday April 17th 2014

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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.

In Escambia County, officials have relied on volunteers to aid the sea turtles in their journey to the water. Beach property owners have also been urged to voluntarily comply with turtle-appropriate practices.

“Our focus up to now has always been through education,” Day said. “It’s just not working very well.”

Recently, the possibility of a sea turtle ordinance—tentatively titled the Barrier Island Lighting ordinance—was discussed during a community meeting hosted by Commissioner Grover Robinson on Pensacola Beach.

“It’s gonna get done,” Robinson assured his constituents. “I think you’re going to see something happen.”

People in attendance were curious why the existing rules pertaining to sea turtles were not being enforced.

“It’s just a matter of if the feds are paying attention,” Wilkins told them.

Robinson’s beach constituents also wondered why development in recent years had not been required to be in compliance with the existing regulations.

“I mean, some of them were pretty dang recent,” said one man. “It seems like the people that are in violation should be held accountable right now.”

It was tough logic to dispute.

“I hear what y’all are saying,” Wilkins said, “and I think that’s a fair consideration.”

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Sea Turtles Benefit from Oil Spill

Unrelated to Escambia County’s efforts to draft a lighting ordinance, the federal government is also focusing on protecting sea turtles along the Gulf Coast. As part of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Phase II Early Restoration Plan, lighting issues will be addressed in several Florida counties, as well as Baldwin County, Ala.

“It works really well, which wasn’t planned, but we’ll accept it,” said Escambia County Community and Environment Director Keith Wilkins.

The federal plan is part of the early restoration stemming from the 2010 oil spill. At a cost of about $4.3 million, lighting issues will be tackled on public land.

Recently, the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Trustees—the group tasked with designing the early restoration work—hosted a local forum to discuss Phase II projects. When it came to the project addressing sea turtles, attendees wondered why it only applied to public lands. They pointed out that much of the light pollution on local beaches was due to private properties, specifically commercial properties.

The Phase II projects—along with sea turtle lighting, the restoration work also addresses shore bird habitat—are still in the planning phases. The public input received will be considered when finalizing the projects.

Wilkins said he is hopeful that the project will be expanded to include private property owners. Regardless, the project will help bring the county, state and federally owned portions of local beaches into compliance with existing rules.

“Because we are as guilty as anybody of having lights out of compliance,” Wilkins noted.