OCEAN CITY — Sometimes, the bright lights of Ocean City are more than they seem, especially if the light pollution they produce impacts sea life.
Developments like the Cambria Hotel near the Route 50 bridge have drawn the ire of local residents for their use of LED lights along its exterior. Complaints that it was an eyesore joined those that claimed other locations with similar lights could cause wayward sea turtles to stray as they made their trek to nesting sites along the beach.
The hotel, open for about two years, and those like it precipitated a zoning code amendment by the city’s planning commission that would address LED lighting standards at current and future developments.
“We’ve spoken to several manufacturing experts to understand how to best measure this brighter light as well as looking at other communities,” said William Neville, director of planning and community development for Ocean City. “We have a light code to deal with the light we’ve had for the past 10 or 20 years, but we need new standards. We haven’t prepared an ordinance yet, but we’ll be preparing one and presenting that to our planning commission in the next 30 days.”
According to Neville, multistory condominium buildings also have been replacing external light fixtures with newer, brighter hardware, leading to complaints to the city’s planning commission. The number of complaints wasn’t immediately known.
Being both a tourist destination and one that is continually growing makes it difficult to pinpoint just one impact from the light pollution. Furthermore, the number of buildings that already use myriad colors to stand out among the numerous businesses could make a light ordinance contentious.
“We are a big, developed community, so it’s hard to say it’s just one property as being behind any impact on natural resources. Our entire community is a city that comes alive at night with bright lights,” Neville said.
The iconic boardwalk, for instance, is replete with a plethora of neon and fluorescent lighting aimed at drawing in customers, especially during the peak summer season.
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Florida-based Sea Turtle Conservancy notes that nesting turtles once had no trouble finding a quiet, dark beach on which to nest, but now, they must compete with tourists, businesses and coastal residents for use of sandy beaches.
As seaside condominiums and hotels dot locations like Ocean City, lights from these developments discourage females from nesting. If a female fails to nest after multiple false crawls, she will resort to less-than-optimal nesting spots or deposit her eggs in the ocean. In either case, the survival outlook for hatchlings is slim.
As recently as 2017, a dole of about 100 baby loggerhead turtles emerged from their eggs and began their journey from the sand to the sea on Assateague Island National Seashore. Ocean City beaches were also where the National Aquarium in Baltimore released three sea turtles after rehabilitation.
“Lighting near the shore also can cause hatchlings to become disoriented and wander inland, where they often die of dehydration or predation. Hatchlings, scientists believe, have an innate instinct that leads them in the brightest horizon, which is usually over the ocean,” the organization said in their species overview.
They also argued excess lighting from the nearshore buildings and streets draws hatchlings toward land, where they may be eaten, run over or drown in swimming pools.
The NOAA Fisheries Service underscores that the six species found in U.S. waters are all listed and protected under the Endangered Species Act. They migrate hundreds to thousands of miles every year between feeding grounds and nesting beaches.
Between being accidentally caught by commercial fishermen, pollution in oceans and overdevelopment of coastlines, light pollution also makes them vulnerable.