Notes from the December 21, 2007 TDC Turtle Lighting Ordinance Workshop
The December 19th meeting reconvened with 8 board members present. Gary Walsingham was absent.
Board attorney Doug Sale advised the board he felt they had three possible courses of action. The first option was to approve draft ordinance 12.20-1 that is a refined version of his 2.18.2007 draft. 12.20-1 provides for some limited grandfathering of existing light sources for economic reasons regardless of whether they meet the public safety exceptions in the draft. However, Sale advised that U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service communicated to him that the limited grandfathering proposal included in this version is unacceptable. The second option was to approve draft ordinance 12.20-2 which is acceptable to the Service. 12.20-2 removes the limited grandfathering clause and instead provides for a extended compliance period until May 1, 2013. Sale advised that the third option was to do nothing.
Sale also reiterated that not recommending an ordinance acceptable to the Service would likely put further beach renourishment projects (including the scheduled 2008 program) in jeopardy. However, Sale explained that there is some uncertainty about whether the Service has the statutory authority to require a lighting ordinance as a condition of our beach renourishment.
Yanni Patronis expressed concern about whether passing a lighting ordinance for beachfront property would result in further revisions that include non-beachfront property that may be found to have an effect on the turtles. Sale responded that he did not feel this was the case because the Service would not be able to make a connection between non-beachfront lights and renourishment.
Mike Bennett asked why the board was not also considering including nest relocation in the ordinance. Lorna Patrick, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, advised that they no longer considered relocation an acceptable solution for lighting issues. Patronis explained that he felt that PCB was an excellent location for relocations since our tourist season coincides with the nesting season. Patrick stated that relocation would not be needed if ordinance 12.20-2 passed.
Marty McDaniel asked Patrick whether the Service will agree to look at other options(e.g. relocation), rather than non-beachfront lighting, in the event that regulation of beachfront lighting was found to not be enough to protect the turtles. Patrick advised that she could not speak for Service but expressed confidence that no further action would be required if 12.20-2 passed.
Gayle Oberst explained that she was worried about the costs of compliance for all beachfront property owners, not just commercial businesses.
Buddy Wilkes asked whether it was possible to increase the bed tax to help cost-share compliance costs with private property owners. Sale explained that this would be possible. CVB resident Dan Rowe also suggested that the proceeds of the current 3rd beach renourishment cent could also be used.
The floor was then opened up for public comment. Julian Bennett discussed other alternatives that could be explored instead of passing a lighting ordinance.
Julie Hilton expressed her belief that the proposed ordinances would not meet the goal of helping the turtles. She referenced Wednesday’s testimony of the wildlife and lighting experts whose appearance her company facilitated. She reported that the compliance cost of draft 12.20-1 for her four hotels would be $5 million which would be economically disastrous for her company. She did, however, express that she could agree with draft 12.20-2 or her own draft that she then distributed to the board.
Charles Hilton expressed that the 5 year compliance period in draft 12.20-1 could not be met for his properties since the problems were unfixable. He stated that rebuilding was the only option. Hilton also advised against the board passing an ordinance for appearance purposes that they did not expect to be enforced.
Betty Briard, a property owner in Aquavista, suggested that the board either postpone the issue for further study(especially due to the fact that new drafts were just distributed today) or decide to challenge the Service. She also expressed her opinion that the individual owners in Aquavista would likely ignore any ordinance that passed just like they ignore rules passed by their own property owner’s association. Briard also questioned how much the TDC was spending on this process of considering a lighting ordinance.
Doug Gilmore from the Driftwood Lodge and Osprey Motel discussed the nests that were located behind his properties this past season. He explained that he believed that 100% of the hatchlings successfully reached the water.
Diane Brown asked the board to ignore Wednesday’s assertions by Dr. Fletemeyer and lighting designer Robert Laughlin that the Service was relying on untruths. Brown disagreed with any assertion that the public would be disappointed with an ordinance being passed. In support, she referred to the 2002 West End Pilot Turtle Protection Ordinance which she claimed continues to be supported by the community at large. Brown also stated that it was her belief that the costs of compliance being quoted by some property owners were exaggerated. She also suggested that if the Board decides to allow compliance through May 2013 that they require property owners to submit a plan of compliance no later than May 2009. She also suggested that any discussion about the option of nest relocation be discontinued.
Lighting contractor Terry Selders explained that many older buildings on the beach could not possibly be retrofitted to comply with the proposed ordinances.
Robert Winston suggested that the Board not recommend a new lighting ordinance. He expressed concerns about public safety, especially involving our spring break visitors.
After the public comments, Gayle Oberst expressed her support of draft 12.20-1. Oberst made a motion providing that the board agrees to recommend that the Bay County Commission and the Panama City Beach City Council enact ordinances based on draft 12.20-1. The motion was seconded by Mike Nelson and passed by a vote of 5-2. Chairman Phillips departed prior to the vote
and the Patronis and Rick Russell cast the dissenting votes. Neither Patronis, nor Russell, made any comments concerning the motion.
Audience member Diana Brown then asked what the effect would be on the 2002 Pilot Ordinance. Attorney Sale directed the question to Bay County Attorney Terrell Arline who advised that that decision would be up to the County Commission.
Editorial by Bryan J. Durta:
It is my opinion that the Bay County Commission and the Panama City Beach City Council should reject the TDC’s recommendation and instead enact Turtle Protection Lighting Ordinances based on draft 12.20-2. This draft was prepared by TDC’s own attorney after considering both the needs of the community and the desires of the federal government.
Are the Hiltons, Julian Bennett, and their experts correct that the lighting ordinance desired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would result in few additional turtles reaching maturity and that better alternatives exist? Probably, but is it really wise for Bay County to take on the state and federal government which fund the majority of our beach renourishment costs? And what will be the costs of this legal battle? Are the property owners who oppose a complying ordinance going to form a co-op to pay the county’s legal expenses? Will the national press brand us as a environmentally unfriendly community? If so, how will this effect tourism?
Does this community really want to put our beach renourishment project at risk based on financial concerns expressed by just a few property owners? More property owners expressed concern when cutting Spring Break funding was on that table than expressed concern over the lighting ordinance. And are these financial concerns being exaggerated? Phillip Griffits, Jr. of the Sugar Sands Beach Resort explained to the Board that his property spent $30,000 bringing his 70 beachfront rooms and public facilities in complying with the West End Pilot Ordinance. While he acknowledges that he is probably not in 100% compliance due to conflicting public safety laws, he believes that the Service considers him to be a model property that has sufficiently complied.
While every property is unique, I believe that further investigation is needed before accepting the assertion of Paradise Found Resorts that they would need to spend over 14 times more per room to comply than the Sugar Sands did. And what will be the financial loss to the community if the Service does succeed in preventing any future beach renourishment on Panama City Beach? We need to remember that the Service potentially has the ability to prevent any renourishment even if we have the financial means to pay for it ourselves. And are the concerns about public safety valid? Are turtle-friendly communities such as Rosemary Beach and Watercolor having crime and safety issues that are just not being reported in the media? And what about all of the new accommodations on Panama City Beach that have been built over the last 10 years in compliance with the turtle-friendly lighting requirements? Are they having more public safety problems than the older properties?
While I agree that government regulation is getting out of hand, it is just not wise for Bay County to take on the responsibility for fighting the federal government on this issue. It is in our best economic interest to follow the lead of vast majority of Florida’s beachfront counties and enact a turtle lighting ordinance that has the support of the federal government.