Lighting survey illuminates turtle hatchlings’ challenge

By Nirvi Shah
A two-year survey of lighting violations along Palm Beach County’s coast found just about what sea turtle protectors expected: More than 40 percent of the properties on the beach have lights that could lead hatchlings astray.
The findings have led to questions about the effectiveness of a county law that allows some cities to monitor lighting violations on their own.
The way the 20-year-old law works, the county is responsible for monitoring lights along unincorporated stretches of beach, as well as the coasts for cities that agreed to hand over that duty to the county. That accounts for about 14 percent of the coastline. But those places that make up the remainder of the 45-mile coast opted out of the county’s requirements and must keep lighting problems in check on their own.
As a result, there has never been a single, consistent survey of the entire coastline, said Carly DeMaye, who oversees sea turtle protection for the county’s Environmental Resources Management Department. The county secured an $81,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to do just such a survey, investing 2,300 after-dark hours over two years to gather information.
“By providing results to local authorities, we can provide any assistance to those authorities who may not have the staff or expertise or who may not be able to follow up on these violations,” she said. Budget constraints could also be hindering some cities’ monitoring efforts.
This survey “takes a little bit of the burden off of them, just one time,” she said.
The municipalities aren’t required to do anything with the survey results.
But the large number of properties with violations in towns that should be policing their beaches for lights bothered County Commissioner Karen Marcus.
“If you can’t do it, if you don’t want to do it, why would you opt out?” she said.
In Gulf Stream, Town Clerk Rita Taylor said her town opted out of county supervision because they felt they didn’t need to adopt the county code.
“We’ve got our own,” she said, but the town takes no active role in monitoring the beach for errant lights.
“There’s some volunteers that patrol the beach. When they see lighting violations they usually give me a call,” Taylor said. “Then we take care of it.”
The way the county compiled the data, it’s difficult to tell whether the properties cited each year were the same ones. In 2008, county surveyors found 34 homes and buildings with lights that could distract turtle hatchlings in Gulf Stream. In 2009, they found even more. Darkening beaches during sea turtle nesting season, March 1 to Oct. 31, is key to keeping hatchlings from losing their way. If they are distracted by light that takes them away from the ocean, they waste precious energy needed when they hit the water, DeMaye said. “They have a very long swim ahead of them,” she said.
In many cases, fixing a lighting problem costs very little or nothing at all. A different kind of light bulb, a topper or special fixtures that shield the light from brightening the beach can solve many problems. DeMaye said that at face value, the large number of properties with lighting problems found by the survey doesn’t mean a cited property hasn’t made improvements over the years, or that the problem hasn’t already been solved.
“One light may have been on the night of the survey. You give them a call and it’s off for the rest of the season,” she said.
And County Commissioner Steven Abrams took a brighter view of the results than some of his colleagues. “If 40 percent of the properties were not in compliance that means 60 percent are. That’s almost two-thirds,” Abrams said. He said county policies don’t allow the commission to impose laws on incorporated parts of the area without giving cities the chance to opt out and create their own rules.
“The county still stands ready to offer tech support to any of the municipalities that ask for it,” he said. “I’m hoping this report serves as a basis to create more awareness. I don’t know of anyone on the coast who doesn’t want to try to protect the sea turtles.”

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