By Larry Schopp, President of Committee of the Islands
When Sanibel’s founders created the Sanibel Plan in 1976, they had lofty goals in mind:
• lots of open, undeveloped space for wildlife habitat and groundwater replenishment,
• limits on population density based on the sensitivity of ecological zones to human intrusion,
• And a building height limit of three stories so the natural beauty of the island was not overwhelmed by tall buildings.
The Sanibel Plan soon won awards and became a model for city planners throughout the United States.
There was a complication, however: The founders were not starting with an undeveloped island. Sanibel had already been developed.
The problem of nonconforming structures
With the opening of the first Sanibel causeway in 1966, developers rushed in with visions of Sanibel becoming another Miami Beach.
Since Sanibel was not incorporated until 1974, it was the Lee County Board of County Commissioners that set the rules for development on the island in the early days. With official approval, some developers built condos on the gulf beach that were taller (four stories), had far greater population density and more developed land area with impermeable coverage than the Sanibel Plan and Land Development Code would later allow.
After the city adopted its own Land Development Code — in sync with the Sanibel Plan –, those condos became “nonconforming” — legal when built but not aligned with current standards. They could exist but not be built back or redeveloped in the event they were destroyed in a natural disaster or simply became obsolete.
The Sanibel Plan didn’t address what to do with nonconforming condos. That created understandable anxiety for condo owners. And that wasn’t the only cause for anxiety. There were rumblings that Sanibel was behind the times, and in need of bigger, more luxurious resorts to drive the local economy. Redevelopment was viewed as the best way forward.
The specter of larger, perhaps taller, luxury resorts was evident to the board members of Committee of the Islands (COTI), who saw irreplaceable value in the small town, sanctuary character for which Sanibel had become famous.
But why the anxiety? Wouldn’t the Sanibel plan prevent overdevelopment? Not necessarily. The Sanibel Plan was vulnerable.
Unlike the city charter which can only be amended with voter approval, the Sanibel Plan could be amended by a simple majority of the city council. It meant that the limits on building height, residential density and developed area were not guaranteed. The COTI board saw at least the possibility that a future city council might forgo the founders’ idealism and jeopardize Sanibel’s essential character as they dealt with post-disaster build back and redevelopment.
The “People’s Choice” Charter Amendments
To prevent any weakening of the protections of the Sanibel Plan, COTI developed three city charter amendments in 2004 – later known as the “People’s Choice” amendments – that enshrined limits on building height and residential density. Only a vote of the people could overturn those protections.
The amendments also protect the Land Development Code’s limits on developed area, impermeable coverage and vegetative removal.
But the condo owners still had no protections. So COTI came up with a compromise between the founders’ idealism and basic fairness to condo owners. A provision based on what existed on May 4, 2004 states: 1) the condos with four stories could be built back after a disaster with all four stories intact; 2) the city council could allow redevelopment of parcels up to the number of dwelling units then in place and 3) voters would need to approve any ordinances to increase developed area, impermeable coverage and alter vegetation removal, but variances would still be available to prevent hardship on a case-by-case basis.
Not everyone agreed with what COTI was trying to accomplish. Some said state law — the Growth Management Act — gave Sanibel all the protection that it needed from over-development. As it turned out, the state legislature repealed the Growth Management Act and abolished the agency that was responsible for its administration in 2011.
When the campaigning was over, the citizens of Sanibel showed that they wanted to control their own destiny by approving the People’s Choice Charter Amendments in March, 2005.
Those amendments today still provide the legal underpinning for the city’s post-disaster build-back and resort redevelopment ordinances. Older condos have the means to rebuild and the island maintains its special status as a sanctuary haven for wildlife and residents.
For more information, please visit COTI. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.