One of two signs currently posted along Sanibel-Captiva Road warning drivers of low-flying owls. Since the lights have been deactivated, a spike in owl mortality has been reported. SC photo by Chuck Larsen Photography
One of two signs currently posted along Sanibel-Captiva Road warning drivers of low-flying owls. Since the lights have been deactivated, a spike in owl mortality has been reported. SC photo by Chuck Larsen Photography

City Council returned to the question of signage to protect screech owls on Sanibel-Captiva Road at its March 5 meeting at City Hall. A motion to re-post the owl alert signs, but with flashing lights disengaged, had been unanimously approved at Council’s January meeting.

A suggestion by islander Larry Schopp, via a letter to council, prompted the decision to revisit the topic. Schopp asked Council to adjust the sign’s wording and reconsider installing dark-sky compliant lighting.

Commenting on his letter, Schopp reported a spike in owl mortality after the strobe lights had been removed: “Ten dead owls within a month and a half,” he said. “We can’t afford to lose 10 owls in a month. It’s up to drivers to slow down, but we can improve signage.”

Schopp recommended the standard diamond-shaped warning sign alerting drivers to low-flying owls. The sign would include the word “caution” rather than “warning,” along with a picture of an owl. “Below that sign, we could add a rectangular sign that says ‘next two miles.’ That will make clear to drivers that there are low-flying owls, and they should exercise caution,” he said.

Schopp stipulated that strobe lights, “because they are intrusive, dangerous and in violation of dark skies, are gone and should not be reinstalled.” In their place, Schopp suggested “fixed, night-time, dark-skies compliant down-lighting that would illuminate the signs.”

Schopp reported checking on “whether I could see the signs at night. From about 20 to 30 feet away, as I got closer to the sign, my headlights went underneath the sign, and I could not read [the sign’s] writing. We already have solar panels in place,” he said. “My hope is that the solar panels could power dark-skies down-lighting.”

Another islander asked council to consider studying illumination “that would be in compliance with dark skies. It’s important to live in harmony with wildlife,” she said.

A third resident also pushed for down-lighting that “would be most useful for these signs. If we like dark skies, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to have a little down-lighting that [could help] people see,” she said.

Concurring, resident Claudia Burns expressed her hope that council “will absolutely light the signs. They are totally ineffective, if people can’t read them.”

Islander Karen Storjohann pressed for some form of illumination, either lighting with motion detectors, or reflector tape on the sign’s edges. “Something has to illuminate the signs, so people will see them. If the sign is blank visually to the driver, then we aren’t achieving anything,” she said.

Mayor Ruane discouraged further consideration of lighting for the signs. “My purpose is not to try to re-bite the apple, but I thought that the two-mile stretch sign would be appropriate.”

Councilman Maughan spoke vehemently against any change. “We went through this in public discussion,” he said. “We voted on the issue and put it to bed. I would encourage council members to close the door. More lighted signs on the island is a horror.”

Councilwoman Holly Smith spoke against lighting, but agreed that “verbiage is a small thing we can do.”

Reiterating that lighting was “not on the table,” Ruane recommended adding the additional rectangular sign alerting drivers to “the two-mile stretch—and ‘caution’ is better wording,” he said.

Near the end of the discussion, Schopp amended his recommendation. “If you are not going to install down-lighting, which disappoints me, eliminate the word ‘warning’ or ‘caution’ and make the other letters larger, so that people will see them,” he said.

Councilwoman Smith made a motion “to direct staff to come up with a signage with [the words] ‘low-flying owls’ and with [the words] ‘two miles’ underneath and to use their best judgment about compliance [with the standard]—and that it not be returned to Council.” The motion passed, with four in favor and one, Councilman Maughan, against, for reason of “signs upon signs.”

Planning Commission Report

Planning commission Vice Chair Matt Kirchner reported on two development applications. The first, for a house on two lots in Gumbo Limbo, which included a pool and tennis court, “was a big undertaking, and neighbors were concerned about the possible noise and size; but the applicants met all of the requirements,” he said.

The second proposal before the commission, BIG ARTS’s planned renovation, “also met the criteria,” Kirchner said. “They are not adding size or programs. They are adding storage for facilities and backstage work. No more seats are needed in the auditorium.”

Both applications were approved.

Approval of City Council’s Proposed 2019/2020 Goals

A listing of City Council’s proposed goals for the coming year included on-island, state, regional and federal water quality initiatives; a review of sign standards, including political signs; short-term rental tracking and compliance; and consideration of the Sanibel Plan’s Transportation Element, “as it pertains to non-traditional modes of transportation. . .including e-bikes, motor scooters and slow-moving vehicles.” The goals were unanimously passed without emendation.