The Florida marine turtle nesting season is annually from May 1 until October 31. When turtles hatch, they instinctively head towards the water, attracted to light cast by the moon. Artificial light from buildings can send turtles in the opposite direction toward roadways and streets.

TREASURE ISLAND — The city has strengthened its coastal lighting standards to protect sea turtle hatchlings, by specifically going after the violator rather than just the property owner.

During a Feb. 16 City Commission meeting, City Manager Garry Brumback said the city worked rapidly to take action “that would enforce lighting standards and protect turtles.”

At an earlier workshop, Assistant Public Works Director Stacy Boyles told commissioners that over the past two years the city has had a high number of marine turtle disorientations, “and a lot of it is due to artificial lighting that can be seen from our beach.”

She advised the city will strengthen its ordinance though heightened and pinpointed enforcement of regulations that restrict artificial lighting from reaching the beach during nesting season.

The Florida marine turtle nesting season is annually from May 1 until October 31. When turtles hatch, they instinctively head towards the water, attracted to light cast by the moon. Artificial light from buildings can send turtles in the opposite direction toward roadways and streets.

She said the city’s traditional code enforcement process takes too long. If an enforcement violation is initiated “in the latter half of nesting season, by the time you get through the process, we’re already out of nesting season.”

In a report to the commission, Community Improvement Director Kathy Gademer advised during the 2020 nesting season city staff and Clearwater Marine Aquarium helped to rescue many disoriented hatchlings crawling away from the water, found on roadways and in parking areas.

Lighting is a primary concern for both nesting turtles and hatchlings, Gademer noted. City staff is diligently working with property owners, residents, and tourists to keep artificial lights directed away from the coastal beach area where sea turtles nest.

“The enforcement of the new regulations will ultimately reduce the deaths of disoriented sea turtles and hatchlings,” she added.

Boyles said in 2018 the city “spent a considerable amount of time working with FWC (the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) to update our ordnance, and as far as I know it’s considered to be one of the best ones that they know of.”

The Treasure Island ordinance simplified regulations to make them easier to understand, Boyles explained. It prohibits artificial lighting that can be seen from the beach during nesting season, unless the light is a long-wavelength bulb. The bulb must be the lowest possible incandescence and the source cannot be directly seen. The glow from a bright white or yellow bulb should not be seen on or from the beach.

The city’s ordinance leaves it up to the property owner to use an approved light and shield. A property owner can also shield the light with the use of increased vegetation, window covering and tinting or may place lights at lower levels.

The current process is aimed at the property owner, not necessarily the violator, and can take many months to enact civil penalties or get the owner to come into compliance, Gademer advised.

The newly updated violation section of the ordinance places the responsibility on the person causing the lighting issue, rather than the property owner.

Under the change to the lighting ordinance, code enforcement can give the violator, whether that person is the property owner, resident, or tourist, one day to come into compliance or face a fine. However, in considering the severity of the violation, the code enforcement officer or the city’s representative has the authority to give a timeframe to correct the violation.

If upon further investigation the code enforcement officer finds that the person has not corrected the violation, an $88 citation per offense can be issued to the person who committed the violation.

City commissioners unanimously adopted the revision.

City changes sign ordinance to address court cases

In the past five years, several cases relating to local government sign regulations have been heard by the courts. City Attorney Jennifer Cowan told commissioners one case in particular, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona, was a U.S. Supreme Court case that inspired the city to tweak its sign code.

In that case the Supreme Court ruled that placing limits on specific temporary signs was more stringent and was in fact a content-based regulation of speech, considered a violation of the First Amendment.

When a sign is content-based the city is held to a higher scrutiny, she explained.

As a result the city removed definitions for political signs, special event signs, real estate, menu and other signs from its ordinance. It also extended the time a sign can be erected on private property to 60 rather than 30 days.

While commissioners favored the change to protect the city from litigation, Commissioner Tyler Payne wanted to extend the time frame a sign can be placed from 60 to at least 90 days. He noted many election signs are up longer than 60 days and he does not want to approve a change that is not going to be enforced or will be complaint-driven.

Commissioners Saleene Partridge and Deborah Toth said they already heard from residents who are resistant to 60 days. Payne argued adopting 60 day limitation to how long a sign can be at a location “is asking us not to enforce rule we adopt.”

The ordinance revision also approved use of one 60-square-inch lawn stake sign per residence.

The change passed by a vote of 3-1, with Payne voting against. Commissioner Beth Wetzel was absent.