A meeting — with limited participants — today between Jekyll Island Authority and state Department of Natural Resources staff is expected to go a long way in deciding which way the JIA decides to modify its existing lighting ordinance. DNR staff and others already raised concerns proposed changes will have on sea turtle nesting behavior.

Documents created in the lead-up to an amending of Jekyll Island’s lighting policy suggest properties aren’t in compliance with the current policy, and proposed modifications could increase the amount of light on the island’s beaches, adding to problems for nesting sea turtles.

The JIA board was to address the lighting ordinance at its May meeting, but that consideration got pushed to possibly the June 18 meeting. The delay occurred following a memo from Rusty Garrison, director of the state Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division, to JIA Conservation Director Ben Carswell.

Garrison stated that there’s no quantitative evidence beachfront development on Jekyll in the last 11 years — since the current lighting policy’s been in place — had a detrimental effect on loggerhead sea turtle nesting, or hatchling misorientation. In general, he wrote, the ordinance operated with significant success.

However, he described a number of different, specific proposed changes to the lighting ordinance that “will result in increased light levels on the beach and potential disturbance to state and federally protected sea turtles.”

The ordinance changes would redefine beach as the area from the high-water line to the first occurrence of vegetation. While people are supposed to stay seaward of the vegetation, sea turtles often nest landward of that vegetation line.

According to the memo, “In some areas, this change will remove significant areas of sea turtle nesting habitat from protection of the ordinance.”

And while unshielded lights in interior rooms of beachfront properties are not allowed under the current ordinance, “several hotels are not currently in compliance,” and the proposed ordinance would do away with this specification altogether.

DNR biologist Mark Dodd noted in a July 2018 survey that the Westin has light fixtures over individual room door entrances that could be seen on the beach, a problem detailed in every survey since the construction of the property. The Days Inn and Holiday Inn also found their way into survey documents for problematic lighting over several years.

Other beachfront properties — at times including JIA facilities, and even the convention center — ended up in lighting survey notes over the past few years, but those issues tend to get corrected eventually.

The proposed ordinance changes would allow things like uplighting of flags near nesting beaches, tree-strap downlights and exempt swimming pool lights from the ordinance altogether, and other modifications “that will individually and cumulatively result in an increase in light levels on the beach,” according to the memo.

When speaking to the JIA board in May, Carswell said they’re “not in any way trying to weaken the ordinance, but for it to continue to be successful with new beachfront redevelopment projects in the pipeline, we must make sure that it can be applied consistently and will stand up to any challenge. In that way, we aim to strengthen the ordinance, but we do want to do so with DNR’s full support.”

Catherine Ridley, vice president of education and communications for One Hundred Miles, said it appears the JIA and DNR are not being transparent, and unnecessarily excluding public input. She also noted it was disturbing JIA didn’t consult DNR staff until after submission of the proposed ordinance changes, when DNR should be one of the first calls to make.

Ridley said she hopes JIA will find a way to make the process more inclusive and transparent for everyone.

“Jekyll has made sea turtles a very public face of its public image and conservation strategy,” Ridley said. “We’re grateful to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center for all of the animals they have rehabilitated and proud of the research and education they’ve conducted. But doing the right thing for sea turtles should carry through to every decision the JIA makes, not just the ones that are convenient.”

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