Florida Legislature Weakens Protection for Sea Turtles

Issue 3, 2012 Article:

* Sea Turtle Conservancy Expands its Conservation Work in Panama
* Florida Legislature Weakens Protection for Sea Turtles

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Florida Legislature Weakens Protection for Sea Turtles

The 2012 Florida Legislature may have dealt a severe blow to sea turtle conservation when it passed the regulatory streamlining bill — House Bill 503. Among many other things in the bill, it also removed the requirement that certain types of large new development projects adjacent to the beach must have a permanent “sea turtle friendly” lighting plan as part of their permit.

Deep in the 41-page bill is language establishing a new “general permit” for large development projects that require storm water management systems. These new permits will be issued for projects that cover less than 10 acres and have less than 2 acres of impervious surface; hence they are referred to as 10-2 general permits. They replace the much more complicated Environmental Resource Permit. The general permit describes in detail what the permit applicant is allowed to do. The permit is then granted through a self certification process with limited agency oversight. This general permit “fast track” approach is being pushed by Florida Governor Rick Scott and the legislature in their ongoing efforts to streamline regulatory oversight of development activities.

Environmental Resource Permits (ERP) are issued for projects that require storm water systems or otherwise alter surface water flows. They regulate the construction of large development projects. Most ERPs can only be issued if they meet a “public interest test” or provide “reasonable assurance” that threatened and endangered species or their habitats will not be harmed. For over a decade this has meant that ERPs must include approved lighting plans to protect sea turtles when these large developments (high-rise condominiums or hotels) are adjacent to nesting beaches. The new 10-2 general permit removes the requirement of a lighting plan. Unfortunately, this reduction in sea turtle protection was not disclosed in the detailed bill analysis that accompanied the new legislation or by the bill’s legislative sponsors as it moved through the legislature.

STC has been working with state agency staff to determine the full impact of the new 10-2 rule on beachfront lighting and sea turtle protection. We are also exploring ways to reduce the possible harmful environmental impacts of the 10-2 permit. There are other layers of permitting that require a lighting plan that are still applicable for some types of beachfront development. For example, permits to build seaward of the state’s Coastal Construction Control Line require turtle protective lighting plans. However, these plans are only enforceable for 5 years, after which the land owner can change the lights. There are also local lighting ordinances that may kick in and help regulate beachfront lighting allowed under a 10-2 permit, but the effectiveness of these ordinances vary greatly from county to county. Regardless of these other safeguards, the new 10-2 permits likely will allow large multifamily structures to be built adjacent to important nesting beaches without turtle-safe lighting. This will be a major setback for sea turtle conservation in Florida.