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Town turns to code enforcement following turtle incident

September 5, 2012
By BOB PETCHER, , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

A local property management company and an owner of a beachfront house are facing a code enforcement hearing after tenants reportedly left lighting on during a sea turtle nest hatching on Aug. 16.

According to Town records, Bay Pointe Property Management and William Griggs of Twin Lakes, Wis. received notice of a special magistrate hearing on Sept. 12, involving the nest hatching incident near the property at 3420 Estero Blvd. A notice of the hearing was sent out on Aug. 23.

The alleged violation is listed under chapter 14 of the Town's Land Development Code section entitled Environment and Natural Resources, Article II Sea Turtle Conservation.

Article Photos

The property owners and real estate company at this 3420 Estero Blvd. location are facing a fine for code enforcement involving a sea turtle violation.

When the nest hatched, sea turtle hatchlings were disoriented and directed towards the property lights instead of the natural light of the night's horizon.

Both Turtle Time and Town officials said this particular violation could not have happened at a worse time.

"We were actually on scene afterwards, trying to get hatchlings off Estero Boulevard," said Town Environmental Sciences Coordinator Keith Laakkonen, the listed code compliance officer. "We probably spent an hour crawling underneath this (short) stilt house trying to find hatchlings there also. We saw the tracks leading under the house."

Laakkonen was on night patrol that evening when the renters of the home approached him. The artificial light caused the disorientation of 17 hatchlings, eight of which died.

"We were walking down the beach that night, and the people that were staying there approached us and told us that there were sea turtles all over their porch, in their laundry room and in their house," he said. "We will be asking for a very stiff fine, because this is irreplaceable harm. You can't replace sea turtles that are dead. We're taking this very seriously."

Turtle Time founder Eve Haverfield said another disorientation happened just a few days later in the same area on the Beach. In this case, there was no one on scene to see who was at fault, but she said she had to scrape hatchlings off Estero Boulevard.

"These (incidents) are definitely preventable. There are laws that protect sea turtles. They are endangered," she said. "We cannot just ignore these disorientations. We can't just keep begging and genuflecting. At some point, some accountability has to take place."

In such cases, enforcement cites the property management or realty company of record and the property owners. From a code enforcement perspective, renters are not deemed liable.

"Ultimately, the Realtors are responsible, but the property owners are responsible as well," said Laakkonen. "Beach Realtors need to understand they have a compliance role to sea turtle lighting. You can't blame the guests who are staying there."

Compliance during sea turtle season from May 1 to Oct. 31 is vitally important.

More code enforcement cases regarding sea turtle harm or potential harm are expected.

"Hopefully, this will be an opportunity for folks on the beach to realize that this is a serious thing," aid Laakkonen. "This causes us to be a little more diligent with lighting issues."

Laakkonen said the proper parties had been notified of the impending nest hatching.

"In this particular case, I had spoken to the owner of the real estate company two or three weeks prior about that property and told them that the sea turtle nest (on/near the property) was going to hatch," Laakkonen said. "Apparently, the guests that were staying there decided to flick on the exterior lights. It happened at exactly the wrong time.

Steve Boge, the broker/owner Bay Pointe Property Management could not be reached at press time. But, according to Town records, an Aug. 22 email by Boge to Griggs stated sea turtle information is within welcome packets sent out to renters upon final payment receipt and also in the welcome book on the kitchen counter.

The email also stated, "We have additional new notices that we will be posting on the refrigerator and near the patio doors clarifying the concerns with Turtle conservation and re-iterating the lighting and furniture issues. Those will be going up today (Aug. 22)."

Why lighting regulations are necessary

When hatchlings emerge from a nest, they seek the light of the moon to make their mad dash into the Gulf and begin their swim to safety. Lights that shine onto a nesting beach can draw turtle hatchlings away from the water and off the beach, where they have a slim chance of survival.

"Turtle Time has been educating the public for 23 years on Fort Myers Beach, and each and every nesting season the Town sends out notices and the newspaper and television media sends out the same message to shield outdoor lights or use the proper kind of lights, said Haverfield. "Every beach access has that same information. All the nests on Fort Myers Beach have the same information. So, no one can claim ignorance."

As stated on each nest posting, it is state and Federal law to comply with sea turtle regulations by turning off or shielding any inappropriate lighting, pulling window drapes down if you live beachside and place all outdoor furniture, toys and tents land-ward of beach vegetation.

Amber LED light bulbs are sea turtle friendly. Haverfield said that, while those particular bulbs are a little more expensive, they last longer and can shine a minimum of 10,000 hours.

Under the best of conditions, only four out of every 1,000 hatchlings survive to lay eggs when they mature. This makes it critical for every nest hatching and this long-standing ritual of nesting to be successful.

"We work so hard to get people educated to keep their exterior lights off," said Laakkonen.

A storm surge from Tropical Storm Isaac occurred at about the same time as a second hatching cycle on Fort Myers Beach, marking almost exactly two months after Tropical Storm Debby bore down and wiped a lot of nests in late June.

"But that is nature and not a man-made calamity. Sea turtles have survived natural events for many years," said Haverfield. "This (man-made violation) is a travesty that could have been prevented."



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