City Hosts Town Hall Workshop on Restoring Sanibel Homes

by SC Publisher Shannen Hayes

A panel of Sanibel city staff from four departments provided guidance to residents on restoring their homes post Hurricane Ian at a town hall workshop Wednesday, April 26 at BIG ARTS. It was also streamed live and can be viewed on Facebook here.

City Manager Dana Souza gives opening remarks Wednesday at a town hall workshop on restoring island homes at BIG ARTS. He is joined by a panel of city staff, which includes Environmental Biologist Dana Dettmar, left, Natural Resources Director Holly Milbrandt, Building Director Craig Mole, Planner Kim Ruiz and Planning Director Paula McMichael. SC photo by Shannen Hayes

The storm made landfall on Sept. 28, 2022 and left behind island-wide destruction. Recovery has been underway for the past seven months and the city wants to ensure residents who are renovating, restoring or redeveloping their properties have a clear understanding of what is required for those projects.

In his opening remarks Wednesday, City Manager Dana Souza said city staff members are there to help residents navigate the city’s codes as they repair or rebuild their home.

“We are here to help you,” Souza said. “And we know sometimes navigating the bureaucratic process and city code, it might not feel that way. This can be challenging in the best of times and sometimes feel very frustrating or impossible when we’re navigating during stressful times.”

But the Sanibel Plan and Land Development Code, along with the people who live here, are what makes our island unique. City Council and Planning Commission have been working to make amendments to the code and regulations for better flexibility where they can, so it’s easier for residents to rebuild.

“Our code is critically important and that it be upheld,” said Souza. “And that’s the role of the (city staff).” He added the Sanibel Plan and LDC have worked for 50 years and it will work for a lot longer than that.

Presentations were made by the planning, building and natural resources departments.

Planning Department

The planning department deals with the application of the Sanibel Plan, which serves as the statutorily required comprehensive plan and a long-term vision document for the city.

“In many communities, you would say the comprehensive plan is telling us what we want to be when we grow up,” said Planning Director Paula McMichael. “The city is mostly built out, so the Sanibel Plan tells us what we want to continue to be into the future.”

McMichael focused the LDC Chapter 126, which addresses zoning. That provides the standards related to setbacks, impermeable coverage, developed area and building height. She said all of those standards are based on where your property is located. “So in which ecological zone your property is located,” she explained.

There are nine distinct ecological zones across the island. Instead of residential or commercial zoning districts done in other communities, that equation is flipped on Sanibel.

“Rather than saying these uses go here, we’re saying we are going to look at the qualities of that land, the characteristics of the ecology of that land and then determine what uses, what development standards are appropriate for that land,” explained McMichael.

To determine a property’s ecological zone, visit the city’s GIS website here and look for the “Future Land Use Map Series.”

McMichael also covered the requirements for the three recovery scenarios: repair, build back and redevelopment. “We in the planning department strongly suggest, and are looking at making it mandatory, that you sit down and meet with us by scheduling a pre-application meeting, if you are looking to build a new home,” McMichael said.

A pre-application meeting allows property owners and their contractors to sit down with staff from the natural resources, building, planning and public works departments for feedback on projects and to ensure early on they comply with the city’s codes.

The Planning Department can be reached by phone at 239-472-4136 or by email at The department is temporarily located at 6200 Whiskey Creek Dr., Fort Myers, but is scheduled to be back on island in May at 2475 Library Way.

Building Department

Building Director Craig Mole said his department’s main role is to protect the health and safety of residents by enforcing the building codes. The department also has the responsibility of managing the city’s National Flood Insurance Program through the Community Rating System.

“Currently, Sanibel maintains a CRS rating of 5, a very good rating, which means property owners are provided with a 25 percent reduction on flood insurance policies,” explained Mole.

The Urban Search and Rescue Team, part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, classified 2,194 structures as majorly damaged, 168 destroyed, 2,525 with minor damage, 51 affected and 188 unaffected.

Currently, the city has issued 4,298 repair permits since Nov. 7, 2022. That number include 143 demolitions, 601 building repairs, 1,413 for roofing, 621 mechanical and 546 for electrical. “That’s more than double what we would do in a year in normal permitting,” said Mole.

He recapped two important definitions: market value or true value and substantial damage. These are important to know when dealing with FEMA’s 50 percent rule. Mole also reviewed work which does not require a permit, such as some interior finishes, as well as what work does require a permit.

“A lot things you may not need a permit, but you really do because you’re going to have a lot of other damage that does require permitting,” said Mole.

He strongly advised homeowners not to make any final payments to contractors without proof of a certificate of completion. He also reminded residents unlicensed contracting is a felony during a state of emergency. Call 1,866-532-1440 to report unlicensed activity.

The building department can be reached by phone at 239-472-4555 or by email at

Natural Resources Department

Environmental Biologist Dana Dettmar gave an extensive overview on the importance of landscaping with native plants and why they should be preserved and why we should care about them. “I think I would start with they are what makes Sanibel a sanctuary island,” she said.

“The native plants and the preservation of the habitats we find them in is what makes Sanibel, Sanibel,” she added.

Native plants are adapted to the local climate and require little to no irrigation or fertilizer once established. They are tolerant of salt spray and saltwater inundation, as well as make the island more resilient to storms. Additionally, they provide a habitat and forage for local wildlife.

Dettmar said a lot of native plants have come back since the storm.

She covered vegetation permits and the exemptions made through Mayoral Proclamation 23-05. “After the storm, we recognized there were going to be a lot of vegetation work across the island and some of that work, under normal circumstances, would have required a permit,” Dettmar said. “It would have be an overwhelming amount of permits.”

However, some vegetation work still requires a permit. Those include mangrove trimming or removal, vegetation trimming or removal seaward of a beach dune, removal of live native vegetation, along with other activities.

When landscaping, the rule of thumb is for every one non-competing exotic plant, it should be offest with three native plants to prevent non-compliance. Planting any invasive exotic vegetation is prohibited. Homeowners or property  managers can submit vegetation plans to the Natural Resources Department for review.

The Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation has created a downloadable post-storm Replanting Guide and the city maintains a list of native plants on its website here.

Natural Resources Director Holly Milbandt followed with post-storm beach nourishment and special standards for beach-front properties.

The natural resources department can be reached by phone at 239-472-4135 or by email at

During a “break-out” session following the presentations, residents were able to get a look at the city’s GIS mapping system and staff provided assistance with Energov, the online permitting system, as well as ask questions in a one-on-one setting.


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