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SC bill to protect turtles would establish special zones with less beach lighting

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Sea turtles hatchlings from at least nine nests on Edisto Beach were disoriented by streetlights and the window lights of beachfront houses in 2017. File/Barb Bergwerf/Provided

A coastal lawmaker is proposing expansive legislation to control much of the beachfront lighting along South Carolina, calling it a uniform step in protecting sea turtles during nesting and hatching periods.

The bill could eventually affect many of the state's thousands of beach homes, though it would not cover every area of the almost 200-mile coast. 

The legislation was pre-filed ahead of the start of next month's session by Sen. Greg Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach.

His proposed Sea Turtle Protection Act would ask the state Department of Natural Resources to determine the areas turtles are most likely to nest and then set extra standards to shield lights there so illumination doesn't reach the beach. 

"Hardly a year goes by that you don’t read some articles about sea turtles that get turned around and don’t make it because of lighting that humans have put on the beach," he said. "If you’re going to exist that close to them, they were here first."

The provisions of the bill would immediately apply to new construction, if passed in its current form, and phase in over 12 months for existing buildings.

In the protected zones, the bill would:

  • Require that dune walkover and parking lot lighting rises no higher than two feet.
  • Set standards to block light from beachfront houses' second story windows.
  • Ban new floodlights and require shades on lights mounted on the outside of homes.
  • Require streetlights and other public lighting to be dimmed during nesting season.
  • Set a fine of $200 to $500 per violation per day.

South Carolina already has a robust ecosystem of people dedicated to sea turtle conservation, especially during the May 1 to October 31 nesting period.

The 400-pound loggerhead is by far the most frequent to nest on the Palmetto State's shores. Volunteer groups locate (and sometimes re-locate) the nests to protect them, clear the way for hatchlings to make it to the water and collect DNA samples for a program to track which turtles are laying eggs. 

But when it comes to lighting, the response is less cohesive. Artificial lighting is problematic for the turtles because they orient themselves based the reflection of the moon and stars on the ocean, Cait Crosby, a biologist at the S.C. Aquarium, said. 

The lights might startle an adult sea turtle and cause a "false crawl," she said, or a situation where a mother leaves the beach without depositing eggs.

Hatchlings sometimes end up in brightly lit parking lots instead of heading straight for the water and on to their habitat as far away as the Sargasso Sea.

The sea includes a floating island of sargassum seaweed in the Gulf Stream that acts as a turtle nursery for the first six to 12 years of life. It's usually about 60 miles offshore. 

"If they're using that limited energy they have (crawling in the wrong direction), they may not make that journey," Crosby said.

In many places, towns and cities have turned to amber or red lighting at night. These warmer wavelengths don't disturb the turtles in the same way, Crosby said.

In the Lowcountry, the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge that links Charleston to Mount Pleasant dims some of its lights during nesting season. 

Currently, rules about lighting on the beach are handled on a town-by-town basis, said Michelle Pate, coordinator of the Department of Natural Resources' Marine Turtle Conservation Program. 

DNR does try to coordinate on projects that will be close to the beach. For example, Pate said she was recently involved in helping plan turtle-friendly lighting on the new Folly Beach Pier that's being constructed by Charleston County's parks system.

She's also coordinated with Edisto Beach, which she said has had many cases of turtles becoming disoriented. 

It's "not through any fault of their own," Pate said. "The houses are right on the beach. They don’t have a dune profile to block artificial lights from going out there."

It's not clear that every community would welcome Hembree's legislation, however. The Island Packet reported last month that a group of Hilton Head Island residents has even hired a lawyer to represent them as they oppose new local lighting standards. The community has been revising proposed rules for nearly two years, the paper reported. 

And it's not uncommon for beachfront landowners to balk at state regulation that limits their property rights, including the building lines and seawall bans from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. A few years ago, another group of Hilton Head homeowners built a seawall across five properties before the agency was even aware of it.

Hembree admitted that when legislation is enacted, "seldom do you end up exactly the way you started" when the bill was filed.

But he said that while some may have concern about property rights, that has to be balance with a respect for the wildlife that share the beach.

"You live in a tight community close to a fairly fragile habitat," he said. "It’s not that easy."

Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.

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