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Feds warn DEP about allowing too many seawalls along beach where sea turtles nest

Singer Island off Palm Beach County has fought erosion with seawalls, raising concerns about where sea turtles will nest.

Palm Beach County (2009)

Singer Island off Palm Beach County has fought erosion with seawalls, raising concerns about where sea turtles will nest.

The walls are going up along the beaches of Singer Island, walls designed to keep the expensive waterfront buildings from washing away. The walls have federal officials worried.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent a letter to the state Department of Environmental Protection last month to complain about all the steel and concrete seawalls the state is allowing to be built on Singer Island, because the walls may block sea turtles from nesting there.

The Palm Beach County island, which protrudes farther into the Atlantic Ocean than any other part of Florida's coastline, is one of the best places in the state for loggerhead, hawksbill and green sea turtles to lay their eggs. That's why the DEP's approval of new seawalls there is a concern for the federal agency in charge of protecting endangered species.

Turtle advocates fear the DEP is allowing something similar to happen all around the state, creating a Great Wall of Florida. DEP records show the agency hasn't turned down a single seawall permit application so far this year, while green-lighting 19 projects involving seawalls, bulkheads or other beach construction.

Former DEP attorney Chris Byrd, who was fired by the agency two months ago, said the deputy secretary in charge of regulation, Jeff Littlejohn, has pushed for easing restrictions on seawalls and other construction along the state's shoreline.

"He's definitely on a crusade to make all beach permitting easier," Byrd said.

Prior to being hired by DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard Jr. in 2011, Littlejohn spent a decade as a consultant helping clients get permits for the construction of seawalls and other beach structures. Byrd and other attorneys said they were fired because they clashed with Littlejohn or his second-in-command over how — and whether — to enforce state laws protecting the environment.

DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller denied the agency was doing anything less than what's required by state law. "Our permit review is closely coordinated with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on turtle concerns and other protected species," she said.

In addition, she said, DEP policy reflects "that coastal armoring should be the last option used to protect development along the state's beach," she said.

Each permit the DEP issues for building seawalls, bulkheads and other beach structures contains a sentence that says it "will result in no significant adverse impacts to the beach/dune areas or to adjacent properties" and that it "is not expected to adversely impact nesting sea turtles, their hatchlings, or their habitat." The last time the DEP denied a permit on upscale Singer Island was in 2009. Since 2007, the state has approved nine permits for seawalls on a beach that last year produced 93,032 sea turtle hatchlings.

"The increase in the number of seawalls that have been permitted on such a critically important nesting beach raised concerns," said Gary Appelson of the Sea Turtle Conservancy in Gainesville.

And Todd Remmel of the Surfrider Foundation said his organization has seen no signs the DEP is considering the cumulative impact of putting walls and bulkheads along so much of the beach.

What really got turtle advocates' attention was the number of "false crawls" — signs that sea turtles looking to lay eggs on a beach had crawled out of the ocean but found their way blocked and splashed back into the Atlantic without nesting, Appelson said. More than 90 percent of the obstructions that caused a false crawl were seawalls and dune crossovers, researchers found.

Normally the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would pay no attention to the DEP's permitting, said a spokesman for the federal agency, Ken Warren. The Fish and Wildlife Service regards the DEP as its partner in protecting sea turtles and their habitat. However when turtle advocates pointed out what was happening on Singer Island, the wildlife service fired off a July 3 warning letter to the DEP.

"Allowing additional seawall construction, especially if they are not constructed as far landward as technologically possible" could violate the Endangered Species Act's rules against unauthorized killing, wounding or harassment of a protected animal, federal officials pointed out in the letter. The letter invited the DEP to work with federal biologists in ensuring the state's permitting process includes more safeguards for turtles.

More than a month has passed since the letter went out, but the DEP has yet to respond to it. Miller said it's still being reviewed and a response is being prepared.

Asked if the federal agency had any follow-up steps in mind if the state rejects its offer of help, Warren of the Fish and Wildlife Service said, "No."

Meanwhile Singer Island residents have told a local television station, WPTV, that they like the turtles too, but are more concerned about their condominiums toppling into the Atlantic. However, some are balking at being assessed $10,000 to $30,000 for their share of the seawall construction bill.

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com.

Feds warn DEP about allowing too many seawalls along beach where sea turtles nest 08/09/13 [Last modified: Friday, August 9, 2013 9:48pm]
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