By James Evans, CEO, Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF)
In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian many discussions on how to rebuild our communities have centered around the idea of resilience. Our communities in Southwest Florida must determine how best to ensure that the places where we work, live, and play are rebuilt in a way that prepares us for increasingly powerful storms.
The islands of Sanibel and Captiva have long existed as sanctuary islands, protecting both wildlife and the natural environments on the islands. After protecting nature for years, our islands protected us during the storm. Despite the damage, the islands’ natural wetlands, dunes, and mangrove systems bore the brunt of the winds and waves.
Certainly, Sanibel and Captiva were not unscathed following Ian, but without the current protections in place, the islands would be much worse off than they are now. Our islands are demonstrating their resilience as businesses begin to open, tourists return to our beaches, and the native plants turn the islands green in the summer rains.
The nature of the islands is no accident. Careful planning by island leaders has reduced density, protected natural spaces, and enforced height and development restrictions that have resulted in the unique islands as we know them. Two story buildings serve to protect the natural beauty of Captiva and provide a barrier from storm winds by allowing native vegetation to intermingle with buildings, providing a barrier from storm winds.
Density limitations help Captiva retain its small-town feel and allow for evacuation from the island’s single road safely. While Sanibel has codified these protections in the Sanibel Plan, Captiva sits in a more precarious position.
Captiva has no municipal governance structure, instead relying on Lee County for their comprehensive plan and zoning decisions. However, even within the Lee Plan, Captiva has specific protections that allow for density and height restrictions, as well as input from the Captiva Community Panel, an advisory board of local Captiva residents and stakeholders.
The citizens of Captiva were shocked to be informed that, with no community input, the county was initiating sweeping changes to the height restrictions on Captiva and opening the door to increasing density at the South Seas Island Resort.
The county argues that the height restrictions within the Lee Plan are too complicated because they lack standardization. But it is due to the distinctive nature of our barrier islands that attempting a one-size-fits-all solution will not work. Standardization would remove the ability for our islands to be resilient and responsive to the pressures we face.
The proposed changes to the Land Development Code and Lee Plan clear the way for South Seas to increase its allowable density and erode our islands resilience. The proposed changes will stress the infrastructure of Sanibel and Captiva, impede storm evacuations, negatively impact water and wildlife, jeopardize Captiva joining Sanibel’s sewer system, and lower the quality of life on both islands.
These decisions are being made quickly, under the guise of rebuilding from Ian without the necessary public outreach, and none of the engagement that one would expect from a member of an island community poised to have a massive impact on its neighbors.
Please voice your concerns to the Board of County Commissioners. Visit SCCF.org to find contact information for the commissioners as well as talking points to use in your emails and phone calls. Additionally, please attend the Board of County Commissioner meetings at the Old Court House in Fort Myers at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, June 20, and Wednesday, June 21.