Changes being sought to Town's beach lights ordinance

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A crowd gathered on a Hilton Head Island beach watch as members of the Sea Turtle Patrol conduct an inventory of a marked turtle nest, counting viable and unviable eggs and entering results in the database.

The loggerhead sea turtle, the state reptile of South Carolina, is revered on Hilton Head Island. The state and federal governments also classify it as a threatened species.

Three public hearings were held in late June at Town Hall to hear comments about proposed changes to the Town of Hilton Head Island's sea turtle protection ordinance. The original ordinance was adopted in 1990 to implement beachfront lighting standards and has remained unchanged ever since.

"The goal is to reduce artificial light that can be seen from the beach during sea turtle nesting season," said Anne Cyran, senior planner for the town. "That is our baseline goal, has been our goal and continues to be our goal."

Female turtles nest from early May until late August, and the hatching season extends to late October. The turtles, weighing upwards of 400 pounds, emerge from the ocean - usually at night - to lay an average of 120 eggs per nest, depending on the temperature and moisture of the sand.

Theirs is a fragile environment on the Hilton Head beaches. The eggs incubate for 50 to 60 days, and then the hatchlings climb to the sand's surface when conditions are favorable. They emerge and waddle downward to the ocean ... if they're lucky.

But landward artificial lights at night - such as those on beachfront homes and resorts - disorient the hatchlings and create a natural disaster for them. The hatchling survival rate is less than 50 percent.

The resumption and discussions of more a stringent, sensible and updated ordinance began in January when Amber Kuehn, manager of Sea Turtle Patrol Hilton Head Island, expressed her concerns to the town's Public Planning Committee and presented a research data report supporting her position. Staff was directed to address the patrol's concerns and potentially take some action.

"The patrol found that between 2014 and 2018, the hatch rate success rate had been reduced from 62.4 percent to 47.7 percent," Cyran said.

"The way the ordinance is written right now is basically ancient, because it doesn't affect any sea turtle biology," Kuehn said. "We know that the light doesn't actually have to hit the sand on the beach to be distracting to the hatchling. It's proven in research and it's proven on our beach. Most of the lights on porches don't put actual light on the sand, but the light can be seen from the beach."

Young hatchlings gravitate toward white light on porches, patios, walkways and swimming pool fixtures and get disoriented, dying of exhaustion and dehydration. Instead of heading inland, they should be heading toward the ocean. They are not affected by red, orange and yellow lighting, Kuehn said.

"I've been on this mission for quite some time and it just got picked up by the Planning Committee recently," Kuehn added. "It doesn't make sense now the way it's written because of the advancements in sea turtle research and in lighting. It doesn't have LED lighting in the ordinance. We didn't have LED lighting 30 years ago.

"We don't get the nesting that we should," said Kuehn, who also owns an ecology tour boat on the island. "We should be getting way more."

Her patrol's goal is to have the town consider its suggestions to improve, strengthen and enforce the revised ordinance and to "make it easier to understand."

Proposed changes to the ordinance are: using sea-turtle-friendly amber lighting; installing tinting or solar screens on all windows and glass doors visible from the beach, allowing only 20 percent indoor-to-outdoor light transmittance; and all glass doors and windows must be closed or treatments (blinds, drapes, curtains, etc.) used if interior lights can be seen from the beach during the sea turtle season (May to October).

If town council ultimately approves these ordinance updates, changes would be effective immediately for new construction and fixtures, while existing construction and fixtures must be in compliance by May 1, 2020.

The patrol, a non-profit organization comprising volunteers and aligned with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, is on the beach daily during nesting season at 5 a.m. monitoring turtle activity. It relies on donations to keep it running.

Though the lighting issue can be controlled, adverse weather conditions cannot.

If there's a deluge of rain, for instance, nests can be filled with rainwater, which can destroy the eggs. If the temperature is too hot, the hatchlings can bake in their nests.

Hurricane Irma wiped out 54 turtle nests, Kuehn said. Currently, there are 321 nests from beach marker 1 to 134, which are tracked electronically by the patrol via a data entry system.

"We can't control the weather, but we can control the light switch," Kuehn said. "If you were to ask me if the sea turtle hatchlings reaching success out of their nests is a crisis, I would say 'yes'. Other people wouldn't. ... Lights out means lights out."

"Everyone is supportive of sea turtles, and the education that the patrol and trackers have done is impressive," Cyran said. "They've done a tremendous push of public information."

Lowcountry resident Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer.

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