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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

Public input wanted on Holmes Beach turtle ordinance

Holmes Beach Mayor Carol Whitmore hosted a meeting for a number of Island residents and property managers to discuss a drafting a new turtle-protection ordinance.

Whitmore said the reason she requested the meeting was because the past turtle season was "rough" — with complaints coming almost daily to her office regarding improper lighting on the beach.

Whitmore said she asked City Attorney Patricia Petruff to draft the strictest ordinance possible to use as a starting point before seeking compromise and balance with the community's input, and before bringing it before the city commission.

"I don't want to go another season with people saying Holmes Beach doesn't care about its hoteliers or turtles," Whitmore said. "This work session is to construct something realistic that we can all live with."

Petruff explained that at the end of turtle nesting season she was notified that Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers had inspected city properties regarding conflicts with lighting and the city was given the task of drafting a stricter ordinance for public input.

Petruff said the draft is supposed to be a consensus of interested parties and it is still early in the process. The ordinance was written using state and federal guidelines as well as a compilation of ordinances already in use in other Gulffront communities.

The purpose of the ordinance is to protect threatened and endangered marine turtles and safeguard nesting female turtles and hatchlings from injury or harassment while present on the city's shoreline.

The proposed draft includes more definitions, which Petruff said are typical of the standards provided by state guidelines.

The draft also proposes stricter wattage limits for exterior lights. Fixtures must have 25 watts or less, which Petruff acknowledged is slightly more stringent than Florida Department of Environmental Protection guidelines.

Jeff and Ken Gerry of White Sands Motel asked if human safety was taken into account when drafting the ordinance. They asked how the proposed wattage requirement compared to state lighting codes.

Gerry and Matt Snyder of Resort 66 complained they were already facing lawsuits from guests who complained of inadequate lighting after falling on their property.

Snyder noted that "if the city tells me to put in low-level light and someone falls, I will refer their lawyer to the city and cite your ordinance when they come after me."

Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch director Suzi Fox said the walkway Snyder claims has "lighting problems" is not an issue on the beachfront, and Snyder has received free yellow light bulbs from TW for use in those areas.

Petruff noted that the ordinance wasn't perfect and a balance should be reached to meet what is appropriate for human safety and also complies with the Federal Endangered Species Act. She said she would have the building department research the safe-lighting requirements, as well as contact other cities to learn how they manage to balance both issues.

The draft also prohibits the placement of beach chairs, umbrellas, cabanas, boat trailers and other similar items on the beach between sunset and sunrise during turtle nesting season. The transport, fueling and maintenance of personal watercraft on the beach after sunset would also be prohibited. These turtle nuisances are already prohibited in Anna Maria, Bradenton Beach and other coastal areas.

Several property managers complained that it was unfair to hold the property owners responsible for actions made by tenants. It's unrealistic to think tenants can be prevented from leaving items on the beach or opening their curtains so lights cast onto the beach, they argued.

Petruff suggested the problem might be a lack of education for Island visitors.

Several hoteliers said they already provide information packets at check-in, they already post signs near light switches, and they refer visitors to the Turtle Watch Education Center to further educate themselves.

"We want to comply, but you're tying our hands with this code," said Snyder. "Our code would be fine now if it was enforced. This puts the burden on all the beachfront properties and managers."

"We're talking about endangered species here," Petruff emphasized. "It's one of the responsibilities of ownership. If you notice violators, you need to knock on their door and re-educate them. If you continue to have violations in this city, it will only hurt all of you. The other agencies will come down here to enforce [the law]."

Sabine Buehler, of Haley's Motel, said everyone gets a rental agreement and property owners can put in writing that tenants will be fined for violating the turtle ordinance. "Then they will close the curtains," she said.

Melanie Johnson of the Beach Inn said she found multiple problems with the proposed ordinance and questioned why there even needs to be an ordinance at all. If DEP guidelines, state statutes and federal law protecting endangered species already exist, Johnson questioned, why should the city should go through the expense, time and energy of having its own ordinance?

Johnson stated that through her own research she found that there are several schools of thought on why sea turtles fail to reach the water. For example, one theory is that sea turtles are near-sighted on land and this may be the problem. Another theory she found is that there are magnetic fields and currents that attract the turtles to the water, or the moonlight, or certain smells can disorient them.

Johnson also stated that the definition of "directly illuminated" is ludicrous. The term is defined as "illumination as a result of glowing elements, lamps, globes of reflectors, or any artificial light source visible to an observer on the beach."

Johnson asked whose vantage point does the definition address — a person walking the beach or a turtle "the size of an Oreo cookie?" How do you determine what is visible from the vantage point of a near-sighted turtle? Johnson asked.

In addition, Johnson questioned if anyone has ever been charged and convicted of causing the death of a turtle. She suggested that the turtle education organization on the Island has become a source of hostility and frustration for property owners. "I think this program has done more to push people to the point of saying, ‘The heck with it, I'd just as soon make turtle soup.'"

Petruff reiterated that the process the city is undergoing to draft this ordinance is aimed at reaching a consensus that works for property owners and protecting endangered species. If common sense took care of the issue, as Johnson suggested, the city wouldn't have hatchlings die from being disoriented and run over by vehicles in the roadway, Petruff rebutted.

A final suggestion Petruff said she would research was the circumstances by which turtle nests could be moved.

Mark Davis of the Beach Inn suggested areas be designated where turtle nests can be moved to remove the burden of proper lighting off condominium and resort owners. Perhaps hoteliers could opt have the nest moved to a beachfront homeowner who wishes to sponsor the nest as a way of creating a fun opportunity for the community to become involved — and give the hotels a chance to keep their properties adequately lit, he said.

Turtle season begins again May 1, Whitmore said, and she wants the new ordinance in place. Petruff agreed to look into the community's concerns regarding lighting requirements for human safety and provisions for relocating nests and bring a revised draft to the public for a work session in January.

Petruff asked that any interested party with a concern submit their reasoning in writing to the city for her consideration.

Copies of the ordinance are available at city hall, 5801 Marina Drive.