By DOTTY NIST
Walton County is now one of more than 75 Florida counties and municipalities that have adopted coastal lighting standards aimed at minimizing negative impacts on nesting sea turtles and on other wildlife native to the coastal area.
The Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) approved the Wildlife Conservation Zone Ordinance with lighting standards by unanimous vote on Feb. 24.
Disorientation from artificial light on the beach is considered a significant threat to sea turtles, and all five species of sea turtles that nest along the Florida coast are listed as either endangered or threatened.
The Walton County Comprehensive Plan, adopted in 1996, mandated a sea turtle nesting protection ordinance, and lighting standards on the beach have been under discussion in Walton County since the mid-1990s or earlier. A new push by the county to put a coastal lighting ordinance in place began several years ago. At that time state and federal regulatory agencies urged for the adoption of an ordinance of this type as a mitigation measure for the temporary seawalls authorized by Walton County in 2005.
The first draft of the current ordinance had been met with strong opposition by beachfront homeowners worried about potential impacts on their property rights and safety. After many revisions to the ordinance, just when those concerns seemed to be alleviated, strong opposition surfaced at the end of 2008 from representatives of hotels, resorts, and large condominiums.
The ordinance presented to the BCC on Feb. 24 was the 13th draft of the document, the result of meetings and discussions between county staff, members of the South Walton Turtle Watch and environmentalists, and representatives of the hotel, resort and condominium community. Facilitating some of the discussions was Dawn Moliterno, Walton County Chamber of Commerce director.
“We’re at fish or cut bait time,” commented County Commission Chair Sara Comander, as the new draft was considered.
Billy McKee, county environmental manager, noted that among recent changes to the document were the addition of a mechanism for approval of lighting variances for existing developments. New developments will be eligible to apply for variances only for swimming pools and surroundings, McKee explained.
John Cottle, a representative of the Community Association Presidents of the Emerald Coast (CAPEC), an organization representing approximately 6,000 property owners in Walton and Okaloosa counties, was appreciative of recent changes to the ordinance but said he had wished for still more changes. He was of the opinion that the 20-month compliance period was excessively short for large condominiums to comply with the lighting standards. Cottle was of the opinion that the environmental benefit of the ordinance would be minimal in comparison with the burden it would put on condominium owners. He added that there were still safety concerns on the part of condominium owners related to the ordinance.
“We believe this is a necessary ordinance,” countered John Shelton, manager of the Tops’l Beach Manor highrise condominium. Shelton noted that every light in the condominium had been changed last year to avoid impact on sea turtle nesting.
Shelton said Tops’l Beach Manor would have supported the draft ordinance in its original form. “We will work with you to do whatever it takes to preserve the beach,” he told the commissioners.
Richard Fowlkes of the South Walton Turtle Watch commented that he applauded the coming together of the different interests. Fowlkes spoke in support of the compromise ordinance but said he had hoped it would be stronger in protection of sea turtles.
Fowlkes said he had heard the statement made that this ordinance would be one of the strongest in the state. “Not so,” he said, observing that contrary to many more stringent Florida ordinances, this one allows lighting on dune walkovers, ignores interior lighting, and allows uplighting.
“I urge you to pass this ordinance,” Fowlkes told the commissioners.
Robert Kamm, of Sandcastles Resorts and Hotels, the company operating the Sandestin Hilton, had been an adamant opponent of the previous draft of the ordinance. He expressed thanks Fowlkes, the Turtle Watch and Moliterno for their part in creating the compromise draft, which he called “not great,” but did not oppose.
After a motion for approval by Pridgen, the draft ordinance was approved, followed by a “Praise the Lord!” from Comander.
The ordinance applies to the area from the mean high water line to 750 feet landward. Single-family residences with up to four dwelling units or less, including rental properties, will be required to comply with the lighting standards by May 1, 2010. All commercial properties will be required to comply by Dec. 1, 2010.
Pat Blackshear, county planning and development services director, told the commissioners that details on the ordinance would be made available to beachfront property owners on the county Web site. Additional information on the ordinance is available by calling the Walton County Planning and Development Services at 267-1955.