A coastal lawmaker is proposing comprehensive legislation to control much of the beach lighting along South Carolina and calls it a unified step to protect sea turtles during nesting and hatching periods.
The bill could eventually affect many of the state’s thousands of beach homes, even if it would not cover all areas on the nearly 200-mile-long coastline.
The legislation was introduced before the start of next month’s session by Senator Greg Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach.
His proposed law on the protection of sea turtles would ask the State Department of Natural Resources to determine the areas where turtles are most likely to nest and then set additional standards to protect light there so that lighting does not reach the shore.
“It’s been barely a year since you read any articles about sea turtles being turned around and not being able to do so due to lighting that people have put on the beach,” he said. “If you will exist so close to them, they were here first.”
The provisions of the bill would immediately apply to new construction, if approved in its current form, and be phased in over 12 months for existing buildings.
In the protected zones, the bill would:
- Require dunes and parking lighting to rise no more than two meters.
- Set standards to block light from the second floor windows of beach houses.
- Prohibit new headlights and require shades of lamps mounted on the outside of the home.
- Require that street lighting and other general lighting be dimmed during the breeding season.
- Set a fine of between $ 200 and $ 500 per violation per day.
South Carolina already has a robust ecosystem of people engaged in the conservation of sea turtles, especially during the breeding season May 1 – October 31.
The 400-pound loggerhead is by far the most common nest on Palmetto beaches. Volunteer groups locate (and sometimes relocate) nests to protect them, clear the way for hatcheries to get to the water, and collect DNA samples for a program to track which turtles lay eggs.
But when it comes to lighting, the answer is less coherent. Artificial lighting is problematic for turtles because they orient themselves based on the reflection of the moon and stars on the ocean, said Cait Crosby, a biologist at the SC Aquarium.
The lights can scare an adult sea turtle and cause a “false crawl,” she said, or a situation where a mother leaves the beach without laying eggs.
Hatchlings sometimes end up in brightly lit parking lots instead of going directly to the water and on to their habitat as far away as the Sargasso Sea.
The ocean includes a floating island of sargassum seaweed in the Gulf Stream that serves as a turtle shelter for the first six to twelve years of life. It is usually about 60 miles offshore.
“If they use the limited energy they have (crawling in the wrong direction), they may not make that journey,” Crosby said.
In many places, cities have turned yellow or red at night. These warmer wavelengths do not disturb the turtles in the same way, Crosby said.
In Lowcountry, Arthur Ravenel Jr. dampens. Bridge linking Charleston to Mount Pleasant some of its lights during the breeding season.
Rules on beach lighting are currently being implemented city by city, says Michelle Pate, coordinator of the Department of Natural Resources’ Marine Turtle Conservation Program.
DNR tries to coordinate projects that are close to the beach. For example, Pate said she was recently involved in planning turtle-friendly lighting on the new Folly Beach Pier being built by the Charleston County park system.
She is also coordinated with Edisto Beach, which she says has had many cases of turtles that are disoriented.
It’s not through any fault of its own, “Pate said. “The houses are right on the beach. They have no cushion profile that prevents artificial light from going out there.”
However, it is not clear that every community would welcome Hembree’s legislation. The Island Packet reported last month that a group of Hilton Head Island residents have even hired a lawyer to represent them because they oppose new local lighting standards. The community has been revising proposed rules for almost two years, the newspaper reported.
And it is not uncommon for beach owners to violate state regulations that restrict their property rights, including building lines and sea wall bans from the state Department of Health and Environment. A few years ago, another group of homeowners in Hilton Head built a lake wall over five properties before the agency even knew about it.
Hembree admitted that when the legislation is passed, “you rarely quit just as you started” when the bill was filed.
But he said that while some may worry about property rights, there must be balance with respect for the wildlife that divides the beach.
“You live in a dense community close to a rather fragile living environment,” he said. “It’s not that easy.”
Now Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.