HOLMES BEACH -- In the 4300 block of Second Avenue in Holmes Beach, a tangled web of sea grape tree branches grows close to the water.
The once-thick branches topped with vibrant green leaves created a leafy wall between beachgoers and nearby houses.
According to the Holmes Beach Police Department, a criminal investigation is underway after a man hired a tree-trimming company to illegally cut the trees. The man, who owns a house across the street from where the trimming took place, had asked the city several times over the past two years to trim the trees. The request had been denied each time, police said.
"We're not going to be making a physical arrest," Holmes Beach Police Chief William Tokajer said Tuesday. "We are going to be submitting paperwork to the State Attorney's Office for review -- requesting charges."
According to an official document from the Florida De
partment of Environmental Protection that outlines sea grape trimming guidelines, it is the policy of the agency to protect native salt-tolerant vegetation and endangered plant communities.
"We'll have future possibilities of charges after we see the effect it has had on the misdirection of turtles through this season," he said, in reference to baby sea turtles navigating toward the Gulf of Mexico after hatching during nesting season.
According to the FDEP, removing beachfront vegetation increases the potential for disorientation and subsequent injury or mortality of hatchling sea turtles, which are attracted to light. Sea grape trees and shrubs also act as a continuous sand trap, the agency said.
"The accumulation of sand by the leaves, limbs and stalks play a major role in the construction of the beach and dune system," an official FDEP document states.
Tokajer, who described Holmes Beach as a turtle friendly community, said the man could be fined up to $10,000 if it's determined the cutting is to the detriment of sea turtles.
According to the report, several sea grape trees were cut to about half their original size. Few leaves were left on trees trimmed and cut down, and only trunks and large bare branches remain, police said.
In addition, police say possible violations of the Marine Turtle Protection Act and environmental laws are being investigated.
"Due to the way that the sea grapes were cut, it's letting a lot more light be seen from the beach that would not have been seen -- they were probably 25 to 30 feet tall," the police chief said. "Now we're talking about 10 feet ... from the beach, if you're looking towards the residences and the streets, you have to protect the turtles so they don't go toward the wrong light. They have to go toward the moon."
Tokajer has already reached out to Suzi Fox, executive director of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring, to help gather information on the number of sea turtle hatchling disorientations over the past few years to compare with this year.
"This is why you should never trim during nesting season," Fox said. "I have 500 feet of beach that's now lit up that wasn't lit up before."
Sea turtle nesting season ends October 31.
According to Fox, the greatest threat to sea turtles is artificial lighting, which pulls them away from the water.
There are no nests yet in the area where the illegal trimming was done, she said.
"I probably get approximately 10 nests up there a year -- that's 1,000 turtles," Fox said. "This island is 95 percent sea turtle friendly. ... This man has now taken a home that was sea turtle friendly and now it could possibly kill hatchlings. That's unacceptable to us. It's unacceptable to me."
It was unclear why the man wanted to trim the trees. A call to Holmes Beach code enforcement officers for comment was not returned Tuesday.
"We've heard from quite a few people and they're very disappointed by the cutting and how somebody would actually take it upon themselves to damage the natural habitat in that way," Tokajer said.
Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.