By Rich Pollack
With sea turtle nesting season now under way, Highland Beach is moving forward with steps to keep nesting females and their hatchlings in the dark.
This month, members of the town’s Planning Board will review a proposed ordinance designed to reduce the number of bright lights shining on the beach that force some turtles to make unintended U-turns and crawl back to the water after coming ashore.
Town leaders are hoping to have the ordinance in place by early April.
“The proposed new ordinance gives the town more teeth to encourage residents to be aware of the need to protect sea turtles,” said Joanne Ryan, who runs the turtle monitoring program in Highland Beach and is the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s permit holder.
Awareness is a key goal of the proposed ordinance, which would replace one that is vague and difficult to enforce.
“Right now our ordinance is just a few sentences long,” said Highland Beach resident Barbara James, who for many years led the turtle monitoring program and who is still involved in the program. “The new ordinance is more specific and should have a positive impact on our endangered and threatened sea turtles.”
One species listed federally as endangered is the leatherback, the largest turtle in the world and one of the first species to nest during turtle season in South Florida, which stretches from March 1 to Oct. 31.
At least one leatherback has already nested in Delray Beach, and James said she has seen another close to shore off Highland Beach.
Nesting turtles and their hatchlings face a slew of challenges, from predation of hatchlings and habitat destruction, with bright artificial lighting being one of the easiest problems to address.
Bright lights, ranging from those coming from condo parking lights or camera flashes, can spook a nesting turtle. Lights from as far away as the west side of State Road A1A can also confuse hatchlings that are naturally attracted east to the water by the light of the horizon.
Ryan and others say that Highland Beach residents are doing a good job of restricting bright lights during nesting season but that the new ordinance should be helpful.
“Most of Highland Beach is very turtle-friendly,” Ryan said. “But it’s enough of a problem that we want to do something about it.”
That’s where the proposed ordinance comes in.
Broken into two parts, the ordinance includes restrictions on new construction and remodeling as well as on existing properties.
Under the proposed ordinance, people building on beach-facing properties will be required to use amber, orange or red lights instead of bright white lights on exterior lighting. Fully shielded lights and downward directed lights will also be acceptable.
There are also restrictions on lights coming from inside a home under construction, with light screens, shades or curtains required. In addition, glass windows on new homes or apartments facing the ocean will be required to be tinted to reduce light by 45%.
“With construction and remodeling, this ordinance will allow us to be more proactive,” said Jeff Remas, the town’s chief building official.
The proposed ordinance, which also addresses walkway lighting as well as pool area and parking lot lighting, fills gaps left by the vague current ordinance that restricted town officials to offer only vague instructions to people building or remodeling homes.
The proposed 11-page ordinance also provides similar requirements for existing homes and buildings, which Remas says can in most cases be addressed by replacing bulbs or providing light shields, although there will be cases where additional steps will need to be taken.
The building official, who also oversees code enforcement, said that one of the issues that surfaced in the past is building lights being left on unintentionally either by construction crews or because they were on a timer not adjusted for nesting season.
In most cases, those issues are reported by people on the beach before sunrise and are rectified quickly after contact with owners.