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Back in 2011 when the general manager of the Eden Condominium complex on Perdido Key first brought up the idea of retrofitting the building’s exterior light fixtures to become turtle-friendly, not everyone was on board.
“It wasn’t something we were required to do at the time, but we knew that was coming,” said Mike Thomas, who eventually convinced the building’s homeowners’ association to pay for new light fixtures and have them installed during other routine maintenance on the outside of the building.
“We decided to go ahead and make the upgrades. It was the right thing to do,” Thomas said.
More than six years later, Escambia County’s environmental programs manager points to the 161-unit complex as a successful example of a large beachfront building reducing its light emissions to avoid interfering with the thousands of tiny turtle hatchlings that make their way from the beach to the Gulf of Mexico every year.
Under an Escambia County ordinance, all beachfront structures are required to have the turtle-friendly lighting before the 2018 nesting season starts in May.
Turtle experts say reducing artificial lighting is crucial to ensuring the continued survival of threatened endangered sea turtles that nest on Panhandle beaches.
“It’s basic biology that sea turtles, specifically sea turtle hatchlings, are programmed to move toward the brightest horizon when they emerge nest,” said David Godfrey, director of the nonprofit Sea Turtle Conservancy.
“Because we have developed so much of Florida’s coastline, hatchlings can easily become disoriented and head to roads, buildings or parking lots.”
Tim Day, environmental programs director for Escambia County, said numerous buildings on Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key might not meet the deadline to change lighting.
The delay is due in part to the slow flow of restitution funds from the 2010 BP Gulf Coast oil spill. Some of that money is being used to help cover the costs of retrofitting beach lighting.
“When the lighting ordinance was originally passed, we were anticipating a more rapid influx of assistance funds,” Day said. “That money didn’t really start flowing until last year.”
The county received a $90,000 grant for turtle lighting earlier this year, Day said.
“There are some buildings that probably won’t be in compliance by 2018, but if they are working in good faith toward compliance, I don’t anticipate any fines or enforcement,” he said.
Along with the $90,000 grant to the county, the Sea Turtle Conservancy has received nearly $2 million in oil spill funding to help with turtle lighting throughout the Panhandle.
Godfrey said the Gainesville-based organization has used the money to help retrofit lighting on beachfront properties from Perdido Key to Panama City.
“Because of the oil spill, we are in the unique position of having funding available to help residents convert their lights,” said Godfrey, who is applying for additional money to extend the program.
The 90-unit Tristan Towers condominium on Pensacola Beach worked with the conservancy to retrofit its lighting. Steve Picker, president of the building’s homeowners’ association, said condominium owners spent $12,000 of their own money to retrofit lighting and used matching funds from the conservancy to complete the large project.
“It has been slow process, and we were fortunate to have received the grant,” he said.
The switch to the amber-colored LED lights took some getting used to, he said.
“It is a different look for our building. Our sales office in the front used to have big, bright lights. It was something that just wasn’t thought about back when the building was built,” he said.
But Picker said the building’s residents don’t seem to mind the change, especially because it is good for the sea turtles.
“For so many years, people just did what they wanted to and didn’t think about the environment,” he said. “But with all of the education and awareness that is happening now, people want to help the turtles.”
Day said 149 locations on Pensacola Beach and 111 locations on Perdido Key need to make lighting changes.
“For single-family homes, it might be as simple as taking down a porch light and replacing with a turtle-friendly one. It gets more challenging with multi-family homes, restaurants or areas with stairs,” he said.
At the Sabine Yacht & Racquet Club on Pensacola Beach, fire escapes were a problem for people working to change the lighting, said Mike McGraw, the building’s former homeowners’ association president.
Safety ordinances requiring well-lit fire escapes and the turtle ordinance were in direct conflict, he said.
“We eventually worked it out with the help of the county and the turtle conservancy,” he said. “We came up with a plan that worked, it was approved by all parties and we moved forward with work.”
Day said he hasn’t received any complaints from beach residents about the reduced lighting. The amber, LED lights use less electricity and last longer than traditional bulbs, he said.
And, Day said, it is easier for the human eye to adapt to the amber lighting.
“You can actually see more features under the amber lighting,” he said.