Special master orders compliance with turtle regs
A beachfront resort was ordered to comply with sea turtle regulations or face a daily fine during the first special master hearing to take place in Bradenton Beach since the city adopted the code enforcement practice.
The city disbanded its code enforcement board last year in favor of a special master or special magistrate process, which involves a trained hearing officer making findings and conclusions rather than a committee of citizens.
Special Master Harold Youmans, a retired judge, travels around the state presiding over such hearings.
The June 26 hearing in Bradenton Beach drew a crowd to city hall, somewhat surprising the special master of the quasi-judicial procedure. Some people said they were curious about the code enforcement process. Others said they were interested in sea turtles, which are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, Florida statutes and local ordinances. And some said they were interested in both the enforcement process and turtle protection, including Anna Maria Mayor Fran Barford.
Bradenton Beach code enforcement officers Wendy Chabot and Gail Garneau and city attorney Ricinda Perry presented the case against Tri Star Properties, owners of 2218 Gulf Drive N. and 2300 Gulf Drive N.
On June 2, Garneau and Chabot reported violations of two codes at Tri Star’s Sand Pebble Apartment properties - a requirement for turtle-friendly lighting during the May through October nesting season and a requirement that furniture and other possessions be removed from the beach from sunset to sunrise.
A loggerhead turtle caught under a beach chair while nesting was the catalyst for the code enforcement investigation and subsequent hearing.
On June 1, Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch director Suzi Fox notified the city and Sand Pebble management that a nesting turtle had become trapped in a chair left on the beach near the resort.
Fox also reported that lights at two Sand Pebble buildings threatened to disorient turtles - the animals find their way back to the sea by the moon and starlight reflecting on the water, so artificial lights visible from the beach can disorient adults and hatchlings.
Chabot, testifying during the hearing, said she and Garneau investigated the situation June 2 and identified lighting and furniture violations, prompting notices to Tri Star.
During a second inspection June 18, Chabot observed that the lighting problem at 2218 Gulf Drive N. had been corrected by turning out the light, but violations remained at 2300 Gulf Drive North, including about a dozen chairs on the beach after sunset.
Perry asked Chabot for her penalty recommendation; she suggested Tri Star pay a $250 daily fine for each violation and be ordered into compliance. “They need to shield their lights … and they need to stow away their beach furniture,” Chabot said.
Later in the hearing, Perry said the city would be agreeable to a lesser fine, but also wanted Tri Star to pay the city’s costs associated with the case.
Louis Najmy, representing Tri Star, said a fine would “be a hardship.… This isn’t the best of times.”
Najmy did not dispute the city’s claims and offered a speedy fix. “My intent is not to be adversarial,” he said.
Until he received notice of the violations, Najmy said he thought the resort was complying with nesting season rules.
“My concern is to get our property into compliance,” he said. “I thought we were in lighting compliance because of the actions we’d taken. And in years past we’ve never been found in violation because we pull our chairs back.”
Fox testified at the hearing about the lighting and furniture found early June 1 and the threat to the turtle.
AMITW’s attorney, Curt Harbsmeier, also spoke, reminding the special master that the city’s codes “are born of federal regulation.”
“It is my understanding that a citizen actually removed the beach chair from the turtle,” Harbsmeier said.
Youmans, at the start of the hearing, said he was guided by two principles - that sufficient notice is made of an alleged violation and that all have the opportunity to speak.
After hearing from the parties involved and offering to hear public comment, Youmans found that Tri Star had received sufficient notice.
He then made a number of findings and conclusions, including that:
- The two properties “contained deficiencies” and did not comply with the city’s code.
- The violations continued over a period of time.
- The city incurred $948.40 in costs that Tri Star should pay.
- Tri Star must correct lighting problems by close of business June 30 or pay a $100-per-day fine for future non-compliance.
- Tri Star must create a system for keeping furniture off the beach at night by the close of business July 10 or pay a $100-per-day fine for future non-compliance.
“That’s my decision today,” Youmans said.