By Margie Plunkett

Sea turtles will continue to nest in peace under county regulation after Manalapan commissioners put off voting until year’s end on a turtle lighting ordinance that moves control to the town. The proposed ordinance is expected to be resurrected after seasonal residents begin to return.

The draft legislation has been postponed several times and earlier set off a furor when Commissioner Howard Roder accused Mayor Tom Gerrard of personally benefitting from the proposed ordinance he originated. The proposal was also the impetus for written policy on who can request the town attorney to draft ordinances, guidelines which haven’t yet been completed.

The postponement at the June 22 commission meeting came on the heels of a wide-ranging discussion among commissioners, residents and Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resource Management about the implications of opting to move regulations that protect sea turtles to Manalapan’s jurisdiction.

Lighting restrictions are in place during turtle season to ensure hatchlings can proceed to the ocean without being distracted and disoriented by lights from homes on and near the beach. Gerrard and others say that new county regulations are unreasonably restrictive, even limiting lighting that can’t be seen from the beach. Residents claim that the overly limited lighting poses a safety hazard.

Manalapan’s ability to monitor coastal lighting and enforce compliance came into question, as Commissioner William Bernstein, for one, reiterated his previously stated doubts on the topic.

“One of my serious problems with the statute is that it would impose upon our town the responsibility for compliance and I think we have a spotty history when it comes to compliance,” said Bernstein, who was the only dissenter to the proposed ordinance’s approval during a first reading vote in March. The commissioner also feared the added duty would take resources away from the Police Department’s primary duty of protecting residents.

Police Chief Clay Walker, however, said officers routinely patrol the beach at night on ATVs, and could add observation and detection of possible lighting violations to the patrol, which would be far more frequent than the county’s twice annual check.

And Paul Davis of ERM also said with the proper training he believed the Police Department’s efforts would be sufficient.

But Town Manager Tom Heck wanted to study further whether Manalapan has the resources to handle compliance before committing to it.

Others argued against moving too hastily to take on an environmental responsibility that could have a critical impact if not stewarded properly. “I’m not an environmentalist,” said resident Basil Diamond, “but in light of what has happened in the Gulf [of Mexico], when mankind is insensitive to the environment, there are consequences.”

Kathryn Diamond later added, “You have to look at the gulf. We could be the only coast left with turtles.”

Manalapan has had a good track record for nesting turtles, according to information from Davis, who said there had been seven events of turtle disorientation, each of which could involve from one to 100 hatchlings. The beaches here have provided a good environment and above average nesting, he said.

Opting out of county regulation of turtle lighting could also put at risk any funds for beach projects, some argued, although they were countered by comments that because Manalapan doesn’t have a public beach, it isn’t eligible for most funds anyway.

Nine other towns have opted out, with eight of those in 1988, Davis said, adding, no others have opted out since Juno Beach in 1992.

Since it was passed on first reading, the proposed turtle lighting ordinance has been revised to address concerns by county and state regulators, residents learned at the commission meeting.

Revisions include that lights cannot be visible from the beach, altering phrasing that they couldn’t be visible from the beach at a height of three feet, an attempt to view lighting from a sea turtle’s perspective.

Other language was added to guard against the effects of indirect, as well as direct lighting, reflecting what Davis of ERM said were growing concerns about the impact of the glow from indirect illumination.

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