REDINGTON SHORES — Bird lovers flocked to Town Hall on Thursday to display their support for the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary's effort to build a large flight cage for injured hawks, ospreys and other predatory birds.
"Birds of prey need space to strengthen their wings before they are returned to the wild," Michelle Glean Simoneau, the sanctuary's marketing and public relations coordinator, told the board.
The birds are now housed in individual cages in the sanctuary's bird hospital, where many further injure themselves, Simoneau said.
To build the 40- by 20-foot aviary, a size required by U.S. Fish and Wildlife regulations, the sanctuary needed a setback variance on its eastern property line bordering the San Remo condominium parking lot.
After more than two hours of testimony, the town's Planning and Zoning Board approved the setback variance and a site plan for the new aviary 4-1, with only Chairman Bonnie Stein opposed.
The next step toward construction of the aviary is getting the site plan approved by the Town Commission. That panel will decide on Jan. 6.
The sanctuary is at 18323 Sunset Blvd., on the west side of Gulf Boulevard and just south of the Indian Shores town line.
When Redington officials refused in September to grant a building permit for the aviary, the sanctuary began a massive public relations campaign and sought a hearing before the Planning and Zoning Board.
"The Town of Redington Shores should be supportive of the SSS, and be lenient on zoning codes that were created decades after the (seabird) medical facilities are established," the sanctuary argued in a news release distributed to thousands of area supporters.
Many of those supporters responded with letters and e-mails to the town. They also filled the town's commission chambers Thursday.
"The Seabird Sanctuary is a beacon on these shores," said one supporter. "Let this be Redington Shores' legacy for years to come and support for this labor of love."
Greg Sather, an Illinois resident whose property here abuts the sanctuary, praised the work it does rescuing birds, but also complained in a letter that the hospital often is not a "good neighbor."
He mentioned the "bad smell" coming from many of the bird cages, the blocking of his access to the beach during nesting season, and moldy sand stored on the street.
But no one attending the hearing objected to the aviary — particularly not Skeeter, a 9-year-old Eastern screech owl, who perched patiently throughout the meeting, turning occasionally to look at the audience.
Skeeter was donated to the sanctuary as a baby and cannot be returned to the wild, unlike the injured raptors increasingly brought to the bird hospital.
Simoneau explained that loss of habitat in the county has increased the number of injuries to predatory birds. "We are receiving hundreds of eagles, hawks, ospreys and owls, especially babies, each year. We really need this aviary to continue the work that needs to be done."
The sanctuary, which rescues up to 10,000 birds a year, opened in 1972 and is now the largest nonprofit wild bird hospital and sanctuary in the country, Simoneau said.
Stein, the head of the Planning and Zoning Board, said codes trump everything else.
"Probably all of us have been to the Seabird Sanctuary and think you are doing a great job for the birds," Stein said during the hearing debate. "But what we do here has to consider not just the Seabird Sanctuary but the town of Redington Shores. This board has to look at the code. That is our job."
Planning and Zoning Board member Bob Phillips said the sanctuary had made a compelling argument and praised the organization for its "phenomenal" work.