By Rich Pollack
Sea turtle hatchlings in Highland Beach may soon have an easier time waddling their way to the ocean if a draft ordinance introduced last month becomes a reality.
The proposed ordinance focuses primarily on reducing bright lighting facing the beach that can distract hatchings away from the shoreline. It is designed to fill a gap in town code which currently has only broad guidelines regarding lighting.
Absent an ordinance with real teeth, town officials say, they often use state recommendations to guide builders and homeowners seeking to make property improvements.
“This has long been overdue,” said Building Official Jeff Remas, adding that the lack of specifics adds to confusion. “Our existing ordinance is pathetic.”
The proposed ordinance, Town Manager Marshall Labadie said, will have much more detail and will make it easier for the town to enforce turtle protection efforts and seek compliance.
“This ordinance provides property owners with a clear road map to turtle lighting standards in Highland Beach,” he said, adding that clarifying the regulations has been a strategic priority for the town.
Labadie said he believes the town will not have any problems enforcing the proposed ordinance once it is approved.
“Everyone is very cooperative when it comes to sea turtle protection,” he said.
Whereas the existing ordinance says only “no artificial light shall illuminate any area of the beach which may be used for turtle nesting and hatching,” the proposed ordinance addresses everything from parking lot lighting to lights on walkways leading to the beach.
“The intent is for the appropriate design and implementation of coastal lighting to ensure that light pollution doesn’t interfere with sea turtle nesting and hatching events while at the same time protecting public safety,” the ordinance states.
Commissioner John Shoemaker, who has been a strong supporter of preserving sea turtle habitat, believes the proposed ordinance is an important step for the town.
“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be converting to more turtle-friendly lighting,” he said.
Shoemaker said he recently walked along the beach and found areas where bright lights still exist. He said he also noticed that some lighting from the west side of State Road A1A could lure hatchlings away from the relative safety of the ocean.
Highland Beach continues to be a favorite spot for nesting sea turtles, according to state records, which show that more than 1,100 nests were recorded last year during nesting season, which is March 1 through Oct. 31.
While the number of nests appears to be declining, according to records provided to the town, Highland Beach still has recorded more nests than neighboring cities have.
The town recently invited leaders of the volunteer sea turtle monitoring program to a meeting so commissioners could learn more about the turtles and show support for the work the volunteers do.
“We have a heightened awareness and respect for our turtle habitat in Highland Beach,” Shoemaker said.
The Town Commission last month voiced support for the ordinance and agreed to send it to its Natural Resources Preservation Advisory Board for input. The ordinance will then be brought back to the commission for further discussion and a vote.