Stiff penalties may be in store for as many as 140 St. George island property owners who fail to remedy problems with lighting that disorient sea turtles during nesting season.
At the June 18 county meeting, commissioners were told the US Fish and Wildlife Service may invoke the Endangered Species Act on St. George Island.
County Planner Alan Pierce said he received a letter from USFW last month, asking the county to be “more diligent in protecting nesting sea turtles.” The letter requests a meeting with commissioners to discuss sea turtle protection.
“Last year there were a number of sea turtle disorientations and the USFW wants the county to work to diminish those numbers,” Pierce said.
Franklin County, with one of the largest populations of nesting sea turtles in the state, has wrestled for years with problems with disorientations of both adults and hatchlings due to improperly shielded residential and commercial lighting. Since all sea turtles are considered to be at risk of extinction, turtle deaths resulting from improper lighting may violate the Endangered Species Act.
Bill Mahan, Franklin County extension agent called USFW the “the 600-pound gorilla in the room waiting to pounce.”
Mahan said the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is cooperating with the county to use outreach to educate island property managers and owners.
About a dozen property owners and managers on the island attended a June 19 sea turtle workshop at the St. George Island firehouse led by Kelly Roberts, an FWC wildlife biologist. Roberts said she was delighted because she had held county wide workshops where only five had attended.
Last September, USFW threatened to fine island properties with lighting that disorients sea turtles to the tune of $5,000 or more for each violation. A letter from USFW said the county sea turtle protection ordinance, passed in 1998, is not being properly enforced, and that the federal agency would invoke the Endangered Species Act if the county continues to ignore its own ordinance.
A second letter received last month repeated that warning.
Dan Garlick, owner of Garlick Environmental Services Inc., said USFW can and will levy stiff fines in order to enforce the Endangered Species Act.
In my experience what often happens is they impose the fines, which can’t be paid and are not paid by the violator but the whole process gives the community a black eye,” he said. “It’s very bad from a public image point of view.”
According to the Act, civil penalties can be up to $25,000 per violation. Criminal penalties are not to exceed $50,000 in fines and a year of imprisonment. Lisa Lehnhoff, a spokeswoman for USFW said the amount of the fine is largely at the discretion of the USFW enforcement officer.
“There might be one disorientation with more than one hatchling involved and the officer could choose to treat it as a single violation and fine, say, $1,000,” she said. “If a second disorientation occurs involving the same property, the officer might fine the owner for each turtle affected.”
Over the last five years, the Endangered Species Act has rarely been invoked for violations involving sea turtles except where there was criminal activity, for example the sale of turtle meat or purposeful destruction of a nest. Charges against property owners causing disorientations appear to be unprecedented.
However, there is funding available from the Deepwater Horizon settlement targeted at improving and protecting sea turtle nesting areas and it may be that the infusion of this money makes enforcement of the law more feasible.
USFW agents returned to the island in May and conducted a survey that identified 140 residences that may be out of compliance. A copy of this list was attached to the USFW letter sent to Pierce. The list includes beachside and first tier properties from Sunset Beach, on the extreme eastern end, to Bob Sikes Cut on the west.
Businesses are not included in the list; about half the properties on the list appear to be vacation rentals but many are private homes.
In a telephone interview, Lehnhoff said, “The county has had an ordinance since 1998 and (USFW) has been active in trying to bring people into compliance. This is just a continuation of that initiative.”
Donald Imm, a USFW project leader, USFW’s sea turtle effort “isn’t as much about sea turtles as the lifestyle on St. George Island. People have enjoyed the beach there for many years. Being able to coexist with sea turtles and their nests is an important part of that. At some point, it could get so developed local people won’t be able to enjoy that lifestyle. In south Florida, there are plenty of islands where every day Florida residents can no longer afford to go and enjoy those resources. This is about sustained growth, sustained economy and sustaining conditions on the island.
“We fully support a healthy economy and a healthy county. In no way are we trying to oppose any of those things,” he said. “We really hope to give the county residents some options.
“Right now, plans for enforcement of the Endangered Species Act are on hold, but the time will come when law enforcement will get involved,” said Imm.
Susan Ficklen, of Collins Vacation Rentals, was among those who attended the June 19 workshop.
“In the past, Franklin County has stated that there was an ordinance but no money to enforce it,” she said in an interview last week. “A volunteer organization led by Bruce Drye was formed. Each season the turtlers turn a list of non compliant houses to the county. The county sends a letter to the owner.”
Ficklen said Collins has one owner who recently received such a county notification and told the rental company he wanted to be in compliance.
“He contacted the Turtle Conservancy. They provided him with advice and funding for fixtures and installation,” she said. “(Property managers) represent the owners and we are responsible to inform them about anything that will affect them or their renters or property.
“I think it’s important to recognize that we are still a part of the ecoheaven,” Ficklen said. “We already remind every guest when they arrive that this is turtle season. It’s like the beach the way it was when we were kids and people respect that.”
She said the rental companies have received copies of the list of 140 properties and will work to inform affected property owners. “I’m certain that we have the support of all rental companies,” Ficklen said.
Imm said USFW and FWC hope to obtain environmental restoration money from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement to assist in bringing the island into compliance, and will work with homeowners and property management companies to that end.
Lehnhoff began visiting island businesses last week to provide information and answer questions about compliance. She will speak at the August meeting of the St. George Island Civic Club.
At the June 18 county commission meeting, Pierce and Mahan said they had received word from USFW the county too may be eligible for grant money to protect turtles under “Restoring the Night Sky,” a project funded by the Deepwater Horizon settlement.
Pierce said the county’s grant proposal requests funds for education and to pay a code enforcement officer to work nights and evenings inspecting lighting on the island. He said the grant would also provide money to retrofit structures with compliant lighting. The program would be run out of Mahan’s Sea Grant office at the Armory.
Pierce said some portions of the island, including the commercial district, would be difficult to bring into compliance. He said his plan is to create a wide swathe of dark beach on the east end of the island where housing is less dense than at island center.
Commissioner Smokey Parrish expressed concern for public safety if lighting in the business district is reduced.
“Some folks, because they love turtles, get kind of extreme,” said Commissioner Noah Lockley said. “We don’t want that.”
Commissioner Pinki Jackel suggested commercial lighting and signs could be retrofitted to protect the turtles. “They were here before us and we need to try and live with them,” she said.
Commissioners voted unanimously to allow Pierce and Mahan to apply for the grant.
Imm said USFW will continue to document turtle disorientations and collect information that will be needed to prosecute violators of the Endangered Species Act.