Panel approves radar on Satellite Beach conservation land, raising ire of environmentalists

Activists decry ‘open season’ on state conservation lands

Last week, the Florida Communities Trust voted to allow the radar system, proposed by a Florida of Institute Technology meteorology professor.

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – A radar in Satellite Beach and a road in Osceola County have cut through the heart of Florida’s land conservation promises, environmental activists say.

According to News 6 partner Florida Today, a panel that governs how certain state conservation lands can be used signed off Wednesday on a new radar system at Hightower Beach Preservation Area that will better “see” those lost at sea, oil spills, algae and other ocean-surface happenings. Its approval came despite the concerns of some environmentalists who fear the thin antennas, cables and other equipment will harm the endangered sea turtle nesting area and surrounding seagrapes.

Then the same panel voted to allow a major road through prime wildlife habitat in Osceola.

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Last week, the Florida Communities Trust voted to allow the radar system, proposed by a Florida of Institute Technology meteorology professor. The radar, which will include 16 seven-foot-high antennas, would expand the long-wavelength reach of coastal radar to provide better “eyes” for what regional waves are doing, to improve search-and-rescue capabilities, predictions of rip currents, algae blooms, oil spills and erosion.

But some environmentalist fear FCT’s approval of the radar, as well as the controversial road project in Osceola County marks yet two more stark examples of what they see as “open season” on state conservation lands.

“Everybody’s in absolute shock,” Sandra Sullivan, a candidate for Brevard County Commission, and South Patrick Shores resident, said the day after Wednesday’s votes. Sullivan, who attended the FCT meeting in Tallahassee, said the decisions defy the intent of the state conservation lands program. “This is rippling across Florida right now. These conservation lands are no longer protected in Florida.”

The radar in Brevard and the road project in Osceola required FCT approval because they were purchased with state conservation grant money.

Proponents say sea turtles, seagrapes safe

Satellite Beach City Council unanimously approved the radar project at Hightower in January 2021, despite council members concerns, including potential vandalism to the radar infrastructure, and impacts to sea turtle nesting and other marine life. A day earlier, the Indian River County Commission approved a similar radar site at Treasure Shores Park in Indian River County.

But some in Satellite Beach have questioned whether radar is appropriate on land set aside for preservation. A petition lists 839 signatures against the radar.

Steven Lazarus, a meteorology professor at FIT, assures the project won’t harm protected sea turtles or seagrapes along the dunes. He said he’s not aware of any documented evidence regarding impact of the coastal radar frequencies on sea turtle nesting or hatchlings.

“I did run across an article that indicated that the frequency range for turtle hearing is well outside of that of the radar (which is a good thing),” Lazarus wrote in an email to FLORIDA TODAY, adding that the federal permitting process addresses the issue as part of a required environmental assessment. “As part of that work/process, we looked at nesting at FDEP sites that also had a radar. In looking at the pre/post radar installation nesting numbers we and didn’t see any changes. However – hatchlings continue to have issues with coastal development and lighting…”

Lazarus said a radar he just installed at Treasure Shores — which has more seagrapes than Hightower — showed no damage to the plants. While Hightower has a cluster of seagrapes at the main crossover, he added, the area where he proposed to put the antenna south of the crossover, has almost no seagrapes.

Florida law prohibits damaging vegetation growing on sand dunes.

The 16 seven-foot-tall antennas would be two inches in diameter and include cabling.

“As such, the impact to the preserve area would be very minimal,” Satellite Beach City Manager Courtney Barker wrote in a March 8 letter to the FCT.

Other sites within “the target area” for the radar either had vegetation that was too high (Patrick Space Force Base) or was another FCT site (Pelican Beach Park), Barker wrote. The installation is expected to begin in November, the letter says.

The proposed radar system in Satellite Beach would go at Hightower Beach Park, working in sync with the other at Treasure Shores Park.

There won’t be any domes, just radar antennas on the seven-foot-tall, thin poles, usually painted to blend in.

But if all required environmental permits come through, once installed, the radar arrays would close a glaring gap in an integrated system that monitors ocean conditions.

The $500,000 five-year project (not including the cost of the radar) is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as part of its so-called Integrated Ocean Observing System. That network of radars, underwater and above-water monitoring buoys aims to help forecast red tides, fish spawning patterns and other changes in the ocean.

For the local version of the system, Florida Tech would provide near-real-time access to the wave and current data via a web interface — data of interest to fishermen and surfers, as well as scientists.

The radar is very low power, 40 watts, the fraction of a lightbulb, Lazarus has said, so no risk to people or wildlife. And at a frequency of 13.5 megahertz, the radar would be orders of magnitude lower than the frequencies of most cellphones.

Cables connect the receiver poles and transmit antenna to the electronics and can be buried about a foot down to reduce visibility to beachgoers.

Conservationists fear FCT allowing more infrastructure on lands it helped buy also could set a precedent for a proposed hotel across from the Hightower preserve. A Tennessee developer has plans to build a complex called “The Vue” featuring a four-star hotel, single family homes and three condominium buildings at the former Satellite Shores subdivision at the northwest corner of State Road A1A and Shearwater Parkway.

Another line drawn through Florida conservation land

What also raised the ire of environmentalists at Wednesday’s meeting was FCT’s approval of another controversial project proposed by the Central Florida Expressway Authority, to allow construction of the Osceola Parkway Extension through the Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area in Osceola County.

Audubon Florida wrote a letter to FCT in opposition of the project. An alternative route to avoid that Split Oak conservation area would have cost an estimated $100 million more to construct the extended expressway.

Environmentalist say FCT’s decisions on both Hightower and Split Oak broke the public trust on why state money was spent to preserve them.

“Both these sites are funded with public bonds,” Sullivan said.