By DOTTY NIST
Walton County has ordinances in place to protect sea turtles. For some time the South Walton Turtle Watch (SWTW) has been asking for comprehensive enforcement of those ordinances. On Aug. 1, turtle watch volunteers met with county officials and staff to seek more enforcement on sea turtle issues.
This is an important year in Walton County for threatened and endangered sea turtles. So far, female sea turtles have laid 95 nests on the county’s beaches, more than double the record number of nests since monitoring began in the mid-1980s. Hatching of the nests has begun; significant challenges are posed by beachfront lighting not in compliance with county code—and by chairs and other items left on the beach at night that become obstacles to nesting turtles and sea turtle hatchlings.
Both nest laying and hatching of sea turtle nests usually take place at night. Lights shining onto the beach from beachfront properties can both deter female sea turtles from nesting and disorient sea turtle hatchlings as they later emerge from nests. Hatchlings face a race against time to reach the gulf before being eaten by predators such as ghost crabs or racoons. Baby sea turtles are programmed by nature to move from a darker to a lighter area, which on an undeveloped beach would be the gulf in which the night sky is reflected. Often artificial light on the beach draws the hatchlings in the opposite direction, making them more vulnerable to predators and even in danger of being run over by cars. Disoriented hatchlings may also perish due to dehydration or exhaustion.
Under the terms of Walton County’s Wildlife Lighting Ordinance, properties between the gulf and 750 feet landward are responsible for ensuring that no part of the beach is illuminated by their lighting and that no light sources from their property are visible from the beach.
Walton County’s Leave No Trace Ordinance prohibits chairs, umbrellas, tents, and similar items from being on the beach between one hour after dusk and one hour after sunrise, with exceptions for heavier items when they are placed at the toe of the dune during those hours.
Turtle watch volunteers have encountered problems with beach chair and equipment vendors who set up their wares prior to one hour after sunrise and thus interfere with the turtle watch’s morning sea turtle nest surveys on the beach.
At the Aug. 1 meeting, Gerry Demers, acting county administrator, told the volunteers that he had determined that it would be possible to issue code enforcement citations to vendors for certain code offenses. There is a $100 fine associated with a first citation, and a $500 fine is possible when there have been multiple violations of county code.
Jeff McVay, code enforcement officer for the South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC), is tasked with enforcement of the county’s beach ordinances. McVay said he has been removing vendor set ups that are in violation of the code. He said approximately 15 set ups have been confiscated and that the county has had those for five or six weeks now without anyone asking for them.
Sharon Maxwell, turtle watch director, complained that some of the vendors have been setting up their equipment directly in front of sea turtle nests.
Richard Fowlkes, turtle watch volunteer, has expressed concern that chairs and other items placed at the toe of the dune are not being stacked in a compact manner—and that some vendors have even stacked groups of chairs in a line at a right angle to the dune, extending out onto the beach. He said this leads him to think that people do not understand that the purpose of the Leave No Trace Ordinance is to leave as much of the beach as possible clear in the evening for sea turtles.
Walton County is one of only two places in Florida where four of Florida’s five sea turtle species are nesting, Fowlkes noted. He pointed out that the green turtle, an endangered species, does not nest on the flat part of the beach, but instead further from the water and in the dune area. Therefore, even when articles are placed at the toe of the dune, these items can still pose a problem for green turtle nesting. South Walton County’s most numerous sea turtle species, the loggerhead, usually nests on the flat part of the beach but has also been known to nest in the dune area as well.
Maxwell remarked that, including vendor storage boxes, kayaks and other items left at the toe of the dune, there is a lot of “stuff” on the beach at night that is there legally.
McVay said that pictures of violations that are sent to him are helpful. They can go in complaint files and also let him know parts of the beach that are most problematic.
Dawn Moliterno, TDC director, said that the photos can be used in a monthly report that is sent to TDC and county commission members each month.
Maxwell asked how it could be determined whether people renting to tourists were providing renters with information on the lighting ordinance and Leave No Trace.
Moliterno responded that, by law, the TDC is not allowed access to a list of rental properties. She said that, however, there were ways that the TDC could work with the turtle watch to get the word out on the ordinances. She pledged that the TDC beach ambassador would help educate tourists and pass out material on the ordinances.
Fowlkes commented that the lighting issue is an important one and that the county’s Wildlife Lighting Ordinance has been in existence for three years. He said that over that time he has been submitting complaints repeatedly on the same properties that are not in compliance with the ordinance. If there is a code violation, Fowlkes continued, it would seem that the county would be required to act on the complaints.
Demers responded that the county had taken actions but that he was not sure if those actions had been effective.
Fowlkes observed that warning letters from the county to Gulf Trace homeowners letting them know that their lighting was out of compliance had prompted those owners to comply. He said that Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is now directly contacting property owners on this issue. Fowlkes said that in his opinion most people would respond when faced with a warning letter from the county.
Walton County Code Enforcement Officer J.C. Alford said that three years ago code enforcement had written letters to property owners whose lighting was not in compliance to let them know that their lighting did not comply with the code. He said the department was trying to get started with the process of having this noncompliance corrected.
Moliterno said that during tourist season, McVay, the TDC’s only code enforcement officer for enforcement of beach ordinances, must be on the beach. If he is pulled into the office to work on complaints, on-the-beach enforcement will suffer, she explained.
McVay said that when he is on the beach at night, he knocks on the doors of houses where lighting is out of compliance and lets people know. However, usually the occupant is someone visiting, he said.
Moliterno told the volunteers that during the off-season it will be possible to focus in a proactive manner on the noncompliance issues. She added that, upon the end of the tourist season, workshops would be held to address the issues with vendors.
Billy McKee of the Walton County Environmental Department agreed to address complaints against property owners whose lighting is not in compliance by writing letters to inform them of noncompliance issues. These would not be official code enforcement warning letters, he clarified.
Moliterno pledged that the TDC would continue with enforcement and advocacy on these issues. She also agreed for TDC staff to interview the turtle watch volunteers, with the interviews to be used for informational press material to be released all over the region regarding sea turtle nesting.