By LAUREN SONIS
THE HAMMOCK -- Sea turtle advocates rejoiced this week after a county judge ruled a beach-driving ban established to protect turtles was preventing the volunteers from completing the same mission.
Flagler County Judge Sharon Atack acquitted a Flagler Turtle Patrol volunteer for driving his all-terrain vehicle on an unincorporated portion of county beach to protect two freshly laid nests near Varn Park. The judge ruled Monday that state and federal laws allow trained turtle volunteers to drive the vehicles on nested beaches.
Volunteer Denis Cody smiled beneath a brimmed cap embroidered with a turtle image.
"It's enlightening," he said.
In 2005, a sheriff's deputy issued a $500 ticket to Cody, citing a state law that prohibits driving on protected beaches. The county allows volunteers to monitor an 11-mile stretch of unincorporated beach by foot. Cody said the walk has caused about 20 volunteers to stop monitoring since patrollers were expected to lug 50 pounds of equipment for hours on end.
"It's virtually impossible for us to do it," said Cody, a 53-year-old retiree who lives in The Hammock.
The patrol group monitors nests and hatchlings, sending their results to state agencies that use the information for permitting beach construction projects. Cody said because of the ban and the patrollers' inability to monitor all the nests, the information his group collected was discredited.
The ban came about in response to a lawsuit filed by animal advocate Shirley Reynolds, who had previously sued Volusia County and forced changes to beach-driving rules to benefit sea turtles, which are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act.
Rather than fight the suit or seek costly state and federal permits that would have allowed driving, Flagler officials banned vehicles altogether, county spokesman Carl Laundrie said.
"The simplest, most economic solution was to close driving on the beach," he said.
In April, attorney Al Hadeed, who represented Cody on Monday, asked Flagler officials to make an exception to the driving ban for turtle volunteers.
"More than half the nests could not be protected due to an attempted ban on ATVs," Hadeed said.
The county voted down the request, but Laundrie said Tuesday county officials will comply with the court order.
Atack has not released the order yet but asked attorneys to prepare an order for her to execute, Hadeed said. Volunteers with the Turtle Patrol say they will not drive on Flagler County beaches until the order is released, which they expect will happen in a day or two.
Photo Copyright: Larisa Avens