The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission appears to have reversed its previous position not to allow emergency coastal armoring in northern St. Johns County past May 31, which was already a month into sea turtle nesting season.

In a letter to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection last week, the commission said permit holders could continue construction as long as they follow strict parameters and take additional precautions to avoid incidental takes of sea turtles.

A letter the department had received from the FWC on May 24 said it was the commission’s opinion that allowing work after May 31 would result in an “increased likelihood” of incidental take and that no permit conditions would “sufficiently minimize” that likelihood.

The FWC said permitted projects must therefore cease by May 31. At the time, the commission said unfinished work could be re-initiated starting Nov. 1, after the end of sea turtle season.

In response to requests to allow work on some permits to continue past the May 31 deadline, the commission reconsidered and made site visits on May 30.

On June 5, the commission wrote a follow-up letter to FDEP reiterating its concerns about the increased likelihood of incidental takes during peak nesting (in June and July). It also said only the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can authorize such takes of federally protected species and that it hasn’t done so.

However, the commission’s letter said the USFWS had indicated if permit conditions “designed to minimize risks to marine turtles are strictly adhered to by the applicant and their contractors,” the USFWS could not conclude that incidental take would be “reasonably certain to occur.”

FWC said it was of the opinion that the “limited remaining construction” associated with the permits could be completed sooner than the amount of time requested “if a concerted effort is made by the construction crews.”

“The continuation of work into marine turtle nesting season greatly increases the risk of incidental take of threatened and endangered nesting female and hatchling marine turtles,” the letter continued. “Because of the increasing likelihood of risk from now through August, additional protective conditions, beyond those originally provided, will be necessary, and strict adherence to these conditions is required.”

Recommendations for additional and revised permit conditions included a requirement for daily written reports on status of work at the project sites to both FDEP and FWC, as well as a condition that all construction allowed to continue after May 31 would be authorized on a weekly basis by FDEP after consultation with FWC.

"Depending on the condition of the nesting beach in the area and the location and amount of nesting, the FWC shall make a recommendation to the Department as to whether work should continue," the letter said. "If work cannot be completed pursuant to the conditions of this permit, the project site must be cleaned up to ensure that no risks to turtles remain, such as the sand smoothed with no holes (including filling in any dug trenches), ruts, tracks etc., and all debris removed."

Russell Simpson, northeast district ombudsman for FDEP, said as of Wednesday there were about 20 properties that have received extensions to their permits to complete their seawalls. He said work will continue to be authorized as long as permit holders are in compliance with the conditions, there are no sea turtle nests in the immediate area of work and there is consistent progress.

"Department staff has met with each contractor on site and thoroughly reviewed all permit conditions to ensure they understand their responsibilities," Simpson wrote in an email to The Record. "The contractors are aware that if they do not strictly adhere to these conditions outlined in their permits, it will be a violation and subject to formal enforcement, and that it will result in immediate termination of the project until after turtle season."

He said all permitted sites are currently following permit requirements and that the department would continue "strict monitoring and oversight" of the construction activities.