Construction along Mickler’s Beach leads to federal lawsuit

Ponte Vedra Beach resident alleges FDEP violated Endangered Species Act


As St. Johns County continues its recovery from the impacts of recent hurricanes, many homeowners along the beach have begun taking precautionary measures to protect their property from future storms, including building seawalls — but at what cost? Contending that construction along Mickler’s Beach has detrimentally impacted the nesting of endangered sea turtles, Ponte Vedra Beach resident Nancy Condron intends to address the matter in court by filing a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

“It’s essentially a complaint against the FDEP for this administration violating the Endangered Species Act by issuing emergency orders that allow for the construction of seawalls within sea turtle nesting habitat, which is the habitat of an endangered species,” said Jane West, Condron’s attorney.

A member of the Mickler’s Landing Turtle Patrol for nearly a decade, the care and protection of sea turtles has become a passion of Condron’s.

“We built a house on the beach and moved in in 2008 and the turtle patrol ladies just … hooked me in, so I started doing patrol with them in 2009,” Condron said. “I became what we call the volunteer coordinator. I do the schedule and train all the people.”

In coordination with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the turtle patrol monitors the nesting of sea turtles along a 4-mile stretch of Mickler’s Beach, collecting data and ensuring the protection of the nests.

“Every nesting beach in Florida is covered by some kind of turtle watch organization — most are volunteers, some are state parks, some communities pay a company to do it for them,” Condron explained. “It’s all supervised by the FWC and it’s done under the auspices of the Federal Endangered Species Act, because all seven species (of sea turtle) are endangered.”

According to the patrol’s data, this year’s nesting season has yielded a significant decrease in the number of sea turtle nests compared to previous years. Recently sharing some of the statistics with members of the Mickler’s Landing Turtle Patrol Facebook group, Condron revealed that while there were 80 sea turtle nests on July 22, 2017, and 85 nests on that same day in 2016, there were only 42 nests on that day this year. Further, she noted that in some places, there have been more “false crawls” — a term for when the turtles arrive on the beach and then return to the sea without digging a nest — than there have been nests in 2018.  

Why the change? Condron attributes it to the recent increase in private construction projects along the beach.

“A lot of the stuff that the state has been allowing on our beach — from seawalls placed too far east of the homes to trash bags, to river dirt to … unnecessarily elaborate walkovers — all these things are considered a ‘take’ of the nesting habitat of an endangered species,” she said. “Every time you put something on the beach, you are taking potential nesting habitat from the sea turtles.” 

For West, who specializes in environmental law, the protection of endangered species is an issue that she feels particularly passionate about.

“It’s been a travesty watching the construction of these seawalls and seeing very clearly that the turtles are attempting to nest and they’re hitting construction debris, trying to make their way around what are basically traps,” West said. “They’re trying to navigate — in nocturnal conditions — some very treacherous construction debris, and it’s just making it extremely difficult for them.”

Although the lawsuit has yet to be filed, a letter of intent to sue was sent to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service on May 8, and Condron and West intend to move forward with the process shortly.

As for those homeowners looking to protect their property from coastal flooding and erosion, West contends that beach renourishment is the best path forward for all involved.

“The best solution for both the natural environment, as well as the protection of private property, is using dune restoration to protect both,” she said. “What this requires is obviously a greater amount of beach for those dune systems to actually thrive, and that requires more beach nourishment in this part of the county. It’s all a multistep process, but certainly, the maintenance of a natural dune system is what is going to afford a private property owner the most protection from hurricane and storm events.”