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Dark Sky Compliant Outdoor Lighting on the Beaches of North Carolina: Your Quick Guide

Turtle season is here! From May 1st through October 31st it is turtle nesting season on the North Carolina coast. From North Topsail Beach to Sunset Beach and everywhere in between, locals and tourists alike are hoping to spot a sea turtle making its way ashore to build a nest. Within 50-70 days, these eggs will hatch, and we’ll begin watching for turtle hatchlings to make their way out to the ocean safely.


Lighting affects the sea turtle nesting and hatching process from start to finish. If there are too many lights on the beach, sea turtles will be too scared to come ashore to lay their eggs. According to, when the eggs hatch, the baby turtles wait for the sand to cool indicating night time for their treacherous trip back out to the ocean. Hatchlings use several cues to find their way including the slope of the beach, white wave crests, and the natural light of the ocean horizon. In an effort to help baby sea turtles make it safely, it is important to keep lights off the beach from May – October. It is also important to keep lights near the beach from misleading the turtles in the wrong direction. This is where dark sky compliant lighting comes into play.


Bald Head Island and Surf City even have Sea Turtle protection ordinances that dictate lighting rules to help protect the animals. While not every NC beach has these ordinances, it is widely understood that those who live near or have businesses on the water should follow their basic principles. Here is what the Bald Head Island and Surf City turtle protection lighting ordinance dictates:

Bald Head Island Turtle Lighting

Lighting at night during turtle nesting season, July through September, shall be shielded so as not to disturb turtle nesting.

Surf City Turtle Lighting

  • Outdoor lighting shall use shielding to prevent light from illuminating the nighttime sky and from spilling onto adjoining property.
  • The maximum fixture height shall be thirty (30) feet for full cutoff fixtures and twenty (20) feet for non-cutoff fixtures (including residential).
  • Light fixtures using more than six hundred (600) watts shall be full cut-off light fixtures. Low intensity lighting is preferred.
  • All outdoor lighting shall be designed and located such that the maximum illumination measured in foot candles at the property line shall not exceed three-tenths (.3) for non cutoff lights and one and one-half (1.5) for cutoff lights.
  • All site plans submitted for review must have a lighting plan showing foot-candles on site as well as fixture type, fixture height and fixture location.
  • All illuminated signs must be lit internally or lit by top-mounted lights pointed downward, including billboards.
  • Commercial and residential lighting shall not shine into vehicular travel lanes.
  • Any commercial lighting to face the beachfront shall be approved by the community development department. No light shall project directly at the beachfront (including residential).
  • Outdoor lighting shall be minimized after the close of business. Only lights for security, parking areas and walkways shall be left on. Reduced lighting is encouraged after midnight for all lighting sources on-site.
  • Lights shall be maintained in proper working condition.
  • Active recreation areas, because of their unique requirements for nighttime visibility and limited hours of operation (i.e. the lighting of ball fields and tennis courts) are not considered in this chapter. However, lighting fixtures for such uses shall be mounted and aimed so that the illumination falls within the primary playing area and immediate surrounds and so that no direct light illumination is directed off site. Under all circumstance, lighting used for active recreational purposes shall not go beyond 11:00 p.m.
  • Lighting already installed when these regulations were adopted is exempt except:
  • Lighting found by a government agency to create a public hazard can be ordered removed or altered at any time.
  • Any lighting damaged by more than fifty percent (50%) of its value shall be made to comply with this ordinance.
  • Upon installation of any new lighting, this ordinance shall fully apply. An inventory of existing lighting submitted by the applicant will be required when the application for installing new lighting is made.

Prohibited lighting.

  • Neon lights on the exterior of a building.
  • Neon lights on the exterior of a sign.
  • Flashing, blinking or rotating lights.

The basic concept of dark sky compliance is to avoid any lighting that will illuminate the night sky. For the purpose of turtle nesting season, it is as equally important to not illuminate the beach or have any artificial lighting visible from the beach.

At Outdoor Lighting Perspectives of Wilmington, we custom design outdoor lighting packages that are fully compliant turtle-safe lighting and dark sky compliant. Check your town’s website or Municode for details of your lighting ordinance. Ordinances often require permits and inspections which we will be happy to handle for you.

If you live on Figure Eight Island, Topsail Island, Surf City, Oak Island, Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach, Fort Fisher, Holden Beach, Sunset Beach, or Ocean Isle Beach trust us with taking the time and care to make sure your lighting is not interrupting turtle nesting or the hatchlings making their way back out to sea. Call today (910) 356-8203

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