Date: August 29, 2005
Contact: Gary Appelson
Phone: (352) 373-6441
In a move that sent shock waves through the sea turtle conservation community in Florida, the Bay County Commission was set to vote September 6 on whether or not to rescind its 2-year-old Sea Turtle Lighting Ordinance. In a recent Action Alert, STC had asked its members to contact the Bay County Commissioners, asking them not to rescind the lighting ordinance? Due to the number of letters sent, there has been recent media attention on the Bay County lighting issue. One recent newspaper story noted the number of letters generated by the STC website, thanks to all of you that responded!
STC has recently learned that the lighting ordinance has been moved forward to the October or November County Commission meeting so the issue can be thoroughly studied by the county staff. Recommendations will then be made, and the County Commission will vote on the issue. We will let you know when a new meeting date is set.
STC has also recently learned that state agency staff may be invited to make presentations in Bay County to inform local residents about sea turtles and the lighting issues. This is very good news.
Bay County is located in the Florida Panhandle. The largest city in the county is Panama City, which has experienced explosive coastal development in recent years.
All lighting on new shoreline development in Florida adjacent to a turtle nesting beach is regulated under the state’s building codes and must meet sea turtle friendly lighting guidelines. However lighting on older construction is covered by local ordinances.
In 2002 Bay County adopted a pilot sea turtle lighting ordinance covering older construction in the unincorporated beaches in the western end of the county. As a result hatchling disorientations in the coverage area have dropped by almost 50% in two years. In contrast, in Panama City Beach and other parts of the county not covered by the ordinance sea turtle hatchling disorientation has increased by 25%. As a result the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the state have been working with property owners to help them retrofit and install “sea turtle friendly lighting” and have recommended that the county extend its existing lighting ordinance to cover the rest of the county, including Panama City Beach.
Some beach front property owners object to the current lighting ordinance and the idea of making it county-wide. They argue that lights are needed for safety and that government should not be telling private property owners what lights they should have. Interestingly, some of the most vocal opposition comes from the influential owners of a few large hotels that are currently not covered by the ordinance. The hotel owners want to make sure the ordinance is not extended county-wide and are working to have it rescinded. Some of these hotels have large floodlights on their beach side walls and roof tops illuminating wide stretches of beach at night. These hotels have refused to comply with requests from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to reduce their beach side lighting.
Recent research suggests that the nesting population of loggerhead sea turtles in the Panhandle is decreasing by about 3% per year. In addition hatchling disorientations are on the rise. At a time when panhandle governments need to be doing what they can to support sea turtle conservation, several Bay County Commissioners seem supportive of reducing protections for sea turtles to accommodate private businesses. Rescinding the lighting ordinance in Bay County would set a very bad precedent in Florida. It would also decrease the chances for a rebound in the declining Panhandle sea turtle nesting population. The County needs to expand its lighting ordinance to the entire county in order to protect federally threatened sea turtles. It should not rescind its existing “pilot” ordinance in order to satisfy a few business interests.
For information on lighting, its impacts on turtles, and how to retrofit older lighting so it is more “sea turtle friendly” see: