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'No finding of fact for violation' in turtle nesting lighting issue

October 10, 2012
By BOB PETCHER, , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Town officials and a property management firm cited in a lighting incident that Beach code enforcement maintain led to the death of sea turtle hatchlings agreed to a determination of "no finding of fact for violation" last Wednesday (Oct. 3).

As a result, there will be no fine, against either the owner of the property, or the property management firm, which stated it had prepared the property properly for nesting season and had informed a tenant of the nesting season rules and regulations.

It was a tenant of the 3420 Estero Blvd. property owned by William Griggs that reportedly left lighting on during the turtle nest hatching on Aug. 16.

Article Photos

This is a slide of the path that the hatchlings took. It was part of the presentation at the hearing.

Other terms involve Town Environmental Sciences Coordinator Keith Laakkonen and Bay Pointe Property Management Broker/Owner Steve Boge working together to put an educational program on sea turtle lighting issues for other rental agencies, a combined donation be made by Bay Pointe Property Management and Griggs to Turtle Time in the amount of $500, and a combined prosecutorial fee be charged to both the property management and owner in the amount of $95.

Both parties arrived at the resolution after the hearing magistrate requested a recess to allow a caucus in attempts to reach an agreement. Prior to the decision, Town officials had recommended a violation be administered and a combined fine of $40,000 ($5,000 for each of the eight dead sea turtle hatchlings) and fees be assessed.

By his order, Magistrate Joe Madden specified there was an "uncontroverted violation" but accepted the agreement structure.

"There is a violation. It is uncontroverted by anybody here, but it must be fielded for the purposes of a repeat violation at this specific property," said Madden. "There will be no fine put in place, and this order will implement the agreement that you reached."

Wednesday's code enforcement hearing was a continuation from Sept. 12. The property management firm and property owner were cited under chapter 14 of the Town's Land Development Code section 14-75, entitled Environment and Natural Resources, Article II Sea Turtle Conservation. If the same property gets cited again, a fine will be put in place, according to Madden.

During testimony, the parameters of the incident were laid out through presentations. Laakkonen said he first noticed lighting violations on the evening of Aug. 2, then noted the hatchling disorientations on Aug 16.

The light source was said to come from the interior of the home that cast a strong shadow across the property. Exterior lighting was also cited as improper and not low profile.

Defense testimony cited a Town street light as the light source and said that an Australian pine hedge acted as a deterrent to the property's lighting.

Property management also provided paperwork as proof that, prior to the incident, information relating to a notice about sea turtle nesting season was posted within the building and a Town notice was within the building's welcoming packet.

Allowable exterior lights were noted to be on back order. Boge said that due to difficulty in acquiring the proper lighting, Bay Pointe maintenance workers actually removed exterior light bulbs and flipped the power breakers off for that area.

"On Aug. 6, I instructed my maintenance guys to go over to the property and remove all of the exterior light bulbs and also turn both breakers off at the front of the house," Boge said.

The tenants, who checked in on Aug. 12, were informed of the sea turtle lighting issues prior to their stay, he said

"Somebody replaced the light bulbs and flipped down the breakers," he said when questioned by Madden as to how the exterior lights were on.

All lights were then brought up to code before the first hearing, Boge said.

As follow-up, Town officials will conduct a nighttime inspection at the property in the near future.

"I will inspect it to check that it is in compliance with all the exterior fixtures turned on so that we can determine that those fixtures would be in compliance and there would be no future issues," said Laakkonen.

Turtle Time founder Eve Haverfield attended the hearing. Afterwards, she said he $500 donation to her nonprofit organization would be used to purchase amber LED bulbs to help Laakonen's educational lights program.

"It's unfortunate that it had to go in front of a hearing examiner," she said. "Hopefully this will be the starting point for other Realtors and people living along the beach front to prepare their properties at the beginning of sea turtle season."

Sea turtle season runs from May 1 to Oct. 31. Haverfield expects code enforcement to be stricter from now on out.

"Call it a lesson learned, but this is a positive outcome for everyone involved," she said. "I would encourage everyone along the beach to come into compliance. They need to put in proper light bulbs to prevent code enforcement issues."

The incident

On Aug. 16, a sea turtle nest hatching occurred near the property at 3420 Estero Blvd. 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.

Laakkonen, the listed code compliance officer, 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. "This is irreplaceable harm. You can't replace sea turtles that are dead."

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.

Why lighting regulations are necessary

When sea turtle 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 Turtle Time founder Eve Haverfield. "Every beach access has that same information. All the nests on Fort Myers Beach have the same information. "

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.



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