Marco Island Council delays vote on higher fines for sea turtle lighting violations

In this 2016 file photo, a nest of loggerhead sea turtles is one of the last remaining nests on Monday, Oct. 31, 2016, at South Beach on Marco Island.

Marco Island City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to postpone the first vote of an amendment to the city's sea turtle ordinance that would have increased fines up to $5,000.

Maria Lamb, chairwoman of the coastal resources committee, said she opposes the proposed amendment because either version of the ordinance will fail if council does not assign adequate resources to enforce them.

Lamb said the city should first measure the wavelength of artificial lights along the coastline using a spectrometer it bought last year and use the data collected as evidence at code enforcement hearings.

Artificial light that shines on the beach at night can disrupt sea turtles from nesting and cause hatchlings to not be able to find their way to the Gulf of Mexico.

"Hatchling disorientation for Marco will remain high in the foreseeable future," Lamb said. 

Maria Lamb, chairwoman of Marco Island's beach advisory committee, speaks to City Council on Jan. 19, 2021.

In response, Marco Island Police Department Capt. Dave Baer said one code enforcement officer is trained to use the spectrometer and another less sophisticated device.

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Lamb also said educating the public about the regulations protecting sea turtles was not included in the new proposal.

"I do not support it and I am the chair," Lamb said.

Baer said city staff communicates with condo associations before the beginning of each sea turtle nesting season and uses social media to educate the community. The season begins on May 1 and ends on October 31.

Baer said condos are fined thousands of dollars every year despite these efforts.

Last year, the code enforcement magistrate issued 22 fines totaling over $10,000 mostly against condo associations for violating the city's sea turtle protection ordinance, the meetings' minutes show.

Five were to South Seas West (Towers 1 and 2), four to South Seas Northwest (Towers 3 and 4), four to Tradewinds and two to Crescent Beach Club.

The Prince, Summit House, Marbelle Club and Sandpiper condominiums got one each.

The JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort and the Surf Club of Marco Resort got one each, but Marriott's citation was for leaving a hotel towel on the beach.

Coastal cities like Marco regulate the amount of artificial lighting seen from the beach because it may disorient hatchlings, causing thousands to die across the state, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's website.

Collier County documented 94 nests last year on Marco of which 69 hatched, said Tonia Selmeski, the city's environmental planner. The county documented 11 disorientations during the same period.

In 2019, there were 91 nests of which 77 hatched. The county documented 15 disorientations during the same period.

Artificial lighting can also keep sea turtles from depositing eggs in the sand, a phenomenon known as a false crawl.

There were 161 false crawls on Marco last year, 24 fewer than in 2019, Selmeski said.

On Marco, coastal property owners have to turn off their lights after 9 p.m. during nesting season, replace or modify light sources so they are not visible from the beach, apply tints or treatments to windows or a combination of these.

The city issued 47 notices last year for violating the sea turtle ordinance, one more than in 2019, Selmeski said. The city issued 31 notices in 2018.

"Those numbers are going up because our enforcement is going up," Baer said.

After one warning in a calendar year, excluding an irreparable event, the proposed ordinance would have added a new penalty structure allowing the city to fine first-time offenders from $150 up to $500, second-timers up to $1,500 and third-timers up to $2,000.

Violators who cause a false crawl, disorientation, injury or death of a sea turtle, their young or its nest, which the city would consider an "irreparable or irreversible event," would be fined up to the maximum possible allowed by state law.

State law allows cities like Marco not to exceed $5,000 per violation in cases of irreparable or irreversible events.

Tonia Selmeski, the city's environmental planner, said Marco Island's current sea turtle ordinance mandates windows within sight of the beach to have tints with no more than 45% light transmittance value. The new proposal would have reduced it to 15% for new or improved developments, making the window glasses considerably darker.

New developments or renovations would also have to use darker tints on windows, walls, railings and doors that are visible from the beach, Selmeski said. 

Several councilors said they did not agree with mandating darker tints. Councilor Erik Brechnitz was not present for Monday's vote.

Councilor Becky Irwin said she did not agree with the proposed tint standard because it would "ruin the view" of beachside properties during daytime.

"People spend millions of dollars for this view," Irwin said.

Councilor Claire Babrowski said it is more than just about the view.

"A lot of us just love the light," Babrowski said.

City Council did not determine when staff would come back with a revised proposal for first reading but City Manager Mike McNees said it could be as soon as next month.

Rezoning request for assisted living facility continued

Preliminary rendering of proposed assisted living facility on Marco Island.

City Council voted 6-0 to postpone the rezoning request for an assisted living facility for its next meeting Feb. 1 at the request of city staff.

City Council was set to evaluate on Tuesday a request to rezone a 10-acre lot across from City Hall to pave the way for a new assisted living facility on the corner of Bald Eagle Drive and San Marco Road.

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In December, the city's planning board voted unanimously to recommend rezoning the lot where an NCH urgent care center is located from commercial to a planned unit development or PUD.

If approved by council, the PUD designation would allow for an assisted living and memory care facility of 86 units and 92 beds. The rezoning would also allow for in-patient hospitals, excluding psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals.

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