Sea Turtle Lights Spark Controvery

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Bay County law protects sea turtles and their hatchlings on the west end of Panama City Beach by regulating lights on the coast.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants the ordinance expanded to include the entire 25 miles of Bay County coastline, but some county commissioners say the policy could put people in danger.

Bay County Commissioner Mike Thomas says he's gotten several complaints about the lack of lighting on the beach at night.

Since May of 2003, special turtle-friendly lights have been installed along beachfront properties on the western five-mile stretch of Bay's coastline to promote more sea turtle hatchlings.

Thomas says the ordinance is extreme and some of the lights should be turned back on.

"For example, the lights can't be over four feet high. Someone could trip. No one would be able to witness a crime. It's just not safe. We need to do a better job," says Commissioner Mike Thomas.

Fish and Wildlife officials say the turtle-friendly lights are crucial, and people can adjust their eyes to the dim lights.

"We haven't seen any increase in crime since the ordinance was put into place. We've seen such success with the program. We haven't seen or heard any complaints of people feeling unsafe regarding the low lights," says Lorna Patrick of Fish and Wildlife.

Commissioners mulled over the idea of transplanting the sea turtle eggs to Shell Island, but Patrick says with hundreds of hatchlings each year, moving the eggs would be too time consuming.

Commissioners will take up the issue again in July.