The City of Fernandina Beach loves the sea turtles that nest on its shores. But it appears love has limits.
At the meeting Tuesday, commissioners rejected a proposal to restrict outdoor lighting and penalize violators who would shine their lights without special bulbs and tinted screening for windows.
The money collected through fines – proposed at $250 per violation – were to be set aside for a Sea Turtle Friendly Fund and used for conservation and protection efforts, according to the proposed ordinance.
Environmentalists say turtles get confused by artificial light. They think it’s the moon shining on the sea and start their walk to the ‘water’. By heading inland, say the experts, turtles can lose their way and die from dehydration or predators. They can also be run over by vehicles or drown in swimming pools.
The city made the request to update wildlife standards and compliance procedures and gathered input from the Florida Wildlife Commission, Florida Public Utilities, Code Enforcement office, and the local Sea Turtle Watch organization.
The Planning Advisory Board first studied the issue and approved the plan at the March 18 meeting, suggesting a map be created for a sea turtle friendly zone for properties near the water.
But three members of the board weren’t convinced that new turtle protections were necessary. They called it onerous and one commissioner called the proposal “crazy.” The effort to change the Land Development Code failed 3-2. The vote went this way:
Mayor Robin Lentz: No
Commissioner Tim Poynter: No
Commissioner Roy Smith: “Speaking for the people, No”
Commissioner Johnny Miller: Yes
Commissioner Len Kreger: Yes
The board heard from one resident – James Miller, who lives on Blackrock Rd. and owns 108 S. Fletcher Ave., which is near Elizabeth Pointe Lodge and the ocean. Mr. Miller questioned the percentage of turtle stranding deaths and deaths attributed to light pollution. He had a power point presentation that included a crowded graph of colored bars, which was difficult to read and understand. Mr. Miller concluded: “There seems to be no upsurge.”
According to Mr. Miller, the proposed rules are too strict. “If someone smoked on my front porch (they) would be in violation of this ordinance,” he said.
He questioned definitions for a sea turtle friendly zone and a beach. He also said tinted windows would cost him more than $1,200.
Mr. Miller showed side-by-side images of what a 5’7” inch person and an 8-inch turtle would see if they were on the beach looking towards houses. The person sees windows and a turtle sees utility poles, he said.
Mr. Miller did not account for the fact that light travels. And that it is possible to see light without seeing the source, such as the light bulb, lamp, or fixture.
Introducing the proposal, Senior Planner Kelly Gibson said the comprehensive plan has a ‘deficiency’ with current codes and enforcement. “That is one of the more significant changes,” she said.
According to Ms. Gibson, compliance is easy and cheap. “Simply turning off the light when it’s noticed is a form of coming into compliance,” she said.
Ms. Gibson said current property owners are not being asked to make changes. She said new rules kick-in when windows are modified. “It’s not something we’re going to retroactively enforce,” she said.
Sea turtle nesting season runs May through October and at the start of the meeting officials announced a record number of local hatchlings last year, putting the number at 122,000, the highest ever recorded. Mr. Kreger credited the 1973 Endangered Species Act and maturation rate for loggerhead turtles, which is 35 years, he said.
Mr. Kreger, who is actively involved in sea turtle protection, said the proposal included installation of ‘long wavelength’ bulbs, which offer greater protection for wildlife and a way for code enforcement officers to measure illumination.
“It takes the subjectivity out of the process,” he said.
“It’s a reasonable approach to make something better.”
Commissioner Miller said he supported his board colleague and after confirming that current property owners would not be required to make any changes, expensive or otherwise, said he would vote in favor the proposal.
Mayor Lentz voted against the proposal without comment.
Commissioner Poynter and Commissioner Smith voiced opposition.
Here’s what Mr. Poynter said: “I don’t get the having to put film on windows. We just had a record number of turtles. I think we’re just getting carried away on some of this stuff. Now we’ve got code enforcement going around measuring does this person have the curtain up or down, is there a turtle there or not. I’m not going to vote for this.”
Here’s what Commissioner Smith said: “Believe it or not, I agree with Tim. This, this, you know people have rights too. This whole thing is going against people’s rights. Like Tim said, the turtles we got more than ever. And the speaker said is it measured from the turtle’s eyes or my eyes at six feet? And his pictures really illustrated it well. Plus, there’s berms out there on the beach and maybe some turtles crawl up to the top of them but I doubt if they do to lay eggs. Yeah, I think this is overkill.”
He continued with a question for Ms. Gibson, “How many cities have something this crazy?…This crazy, this strict.”
“I’m not sure,” said Ms. Gibson.
“I don’t think we got to be the main city all the time for stuff like this. For people to have to pay for blackout curtains or whatever – a lot of people are rich on the beach I’ll agree but there’s some people out there that have had those houses forever and I just don’t see it. I mean, I like turtles probably not as much as Len but I’m not going to vote for this either because it’s just overkill and we’re taking away people’s rights and making them undo something we don’t have to.”