Treasure Islands seeks to strengthen nesting turtle ordinance

Treasure Island is seeking to strengthen its nesting sea turtle ordinance.

TREASURE ISLAND – During turtle nesting season, May 1 through Oct. 31, from dusk until dawn, Treasure Island wants to provide the safest beach for newborn hatchlings and their mothers.

At an April 17 work session, city commissioners endorsed staff’s plan to strengthen and clarify the city’s Coastal Lighting Standards to prohibit the glow of artificial lighting from shining or being seen on the beach, so that baby turtles do not become disoriented when leaving the nest and head in the wrong direction.

Turtles are protected by federal, state, and local law. Hatchlings and their mothers are supposed to follow the moon and starlight reflected off the water and travel to the Gulf of Mexico, but artificial light can disorient and direct them toward land.

“This is something that has been a long time coming and we are pretty excited about it,” said Stacy Boyles, assistant public works director. “Even though we had one of the most progressive lighting standards, we were still having issues with it.”

Staff found enforcement of the city’s existing coastal lighting ordinance to be challenging and found the ordinance language to be somewhat difficult to understand,” she told commissioners.

“Over the last few years, the city has been informed of a higher number of marine turtle disorientations,” Boyles said. “Artificial lighting adversely affects both hatchlings and nesting marine turtles.”

Marine turtles can be affected by artificial lights from properties that are not abutting the beach, she said. Therefore, under the revision no artificial lighting is permitted to be seen from the beach during nesting and hatching season.

The revised ordinance requires residents to close blinds and drapes on windows or sliding glass doors facing the beach, even if their property is not directly on the beach but faces it. It is intended to ensure that both interior and exterior lighting, or any light source inside a structure or building, cannot be seen from Treasure Island’s beaches.

Light sources prohibited from facing the beach can be as simple as a flashlight. It is defined as “any device serving as a source of visible light, including but not limited to light bulbs, light diodes, electronic screens or flames.”

The ordinance leaves it up to the property owner to determine how best to prevent artificial light from being seen from the beach, whether that means some type of screen/shield, curtain, tinting, or using an amber-spectrum light of 560 nanometers or more.

It also prohibits any purely decorative lighting from being used if the light is able to be seen on the beach during nesting and hatching season; it describes both direct and indirect lighting as being problematic for marine turtles.

Mayor Larry Lunn said he has spoken to hoteliers who voiced concerns about their guests addressing the new regulations.

“I had a meeting with the hoteliers. The comment was made that occupants of various rooms open their blinds at night and the light from the room actually shines out.”

“They asked, ‘how can we deal with that and prevent undesirable light from being cast out onto the beach?’”

Boyles said educating tourists is the most difficult task to tackle because there are so many transient users.

“There are different glazing properties you can add to windows that deflect light and prevent it from being seen outside. But the majority of what we need to do, and what hoteliers should help us out with, is education,” she said

She said the city will assist hoteliers with a campaign to educate their guests. They have door hangers they can provide to remind them, and posters that can go up in their elevators.

“There are a lot of different reminders; people know the impacts; they are much more likely to follow along with it,” she added.

Commissioner Deborah Toth, an avid turtle enthusiast who has a collection of turtle figurines, said many of the hotels already have signs, posters and door hangings that inform guests of best practices during turtle season.

Boyles said if the city adopts the enhanced ordinance at the next commission meeting, Tuesday, May 1, staff will undertake a public education campaign to help beachgoers and residents identify best practices for being into compliance. The ordinance will take effect in May 2019.

Among suggestions offered by staff, residents will be advised to keep exterior lights as close to ground-level as possible, angling lighting downward, and applying shields to lights and tint to windows.

Commissioner Heidi Horak noted there is an exception for public property and city buildings to permit Treasure Island to have flexibility when administering the ordinance for its own use.

“In the spirit of having the city comply to the greatest extent possible, with an ordinance they are going to make residents comply with, I would like to see an articulated reason when we do approve a light. I don’t care if the articulated reason is we do this once on the Fourth of July to have fireworks,” she said.

She said she just wants some accountability, either by the city manager’s office or City Commission, so it is not done as a favor or “if political winds shift for a particular thing that may not be good for everyone.”

Staff agreed that the City Commission will decide if a particular request is sensible and grant permission.