by SC Publisher Shannen Hayes
Residents shared their thoughts on matters facing Sanibel, as City Council members listened, in a town hall-style workshop Tuesday, Feb. 15 at the Sanibel Community House. It was a chance for community input prior to the council’s long-range planning two-day retreat next month.
The workshop covered locally-controlled issues which need to be addressed and focused on over the next decade. The environment, community, business and city infrastructure were the framework of the discussion.
Darla Letourneau suggested the council’s strategic plan be organized with a focus on quality of life, which has application to each of those three main topics.
The city’s antiquated technology, including its website, and inefficient paper process reduces customer service and government transparency. And the broken permitting system is the true cause of hold ups in permits instead of the need for compliance with land development codes.
“The city’s strategic plan needs to focus on governmental systems and tools to help us more effectively implement the community’s vision,” said Letourneau. “This isn’t an either/or between the environment and quality of life of citizens. Not only can we have both, we need both in order to succeed.”
In her expanded comments written to council, Letourneau outlined the need for a community-wide strategic plan, using a collaborative public-private partnership model. One which has proved successful in fighting water quality issues.
She said that type of approach could be valuable in meeting the needs of island seniors, fighting homerule infringements by the state and challenges from Lee County government to the island’s small town character and environment.
“A quality of life organizing approach can be a useful tool in identifying specific goals and outcome measures needed for better government,” said Letourneau.
Storm water management and climate change are environmental concerns among those who spoke Tuesday evening. Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation CEO James Evans said continuing to protect the island’s natural resources should be a top priority.
“We must remain vigilant in protecting our island’s natural resources, which are the foundation of our economy and pillars of support to our quality of life,” said Evans. Our natural resources are the best and first line of defense in the face of climate change, he said.
Evans added the support of renewable energy would help mitigate the root cause of climate change. “We are going to need to live with a changing climate. That means we are going to see more standing water in our swales, yards and even roadways during storm events.”
While there may be storm water challenges, such as significant flooding in the Tradewinds neighborhood discussed by Susan Ruberry, in large part it will be the rising sea pushing back at high tides resulting in more standing water on the island, where the average elevation is 4 to 4.5 feet above sea level.
“We need to recognize these challenges and adapt a way that will not sacrifice wildlife habitat for the built environment,” said Evans.
The Center4Life and Sanibel Recreation Center were also among the matters raised. The city purchased the former Sanibel Captiva Community Bank building to be the Center4Life home.
Council voted this month to complete a comprehensive assessment of its recreation department and facilities, which includes the Center4Life, before proceeding with specific renovation plans to the former bank building.
But some members of the Island Seniors group want what they believed was promised to them and some residents think the city should consider other options for serving island seniors, such as the Sanibel Recreation Center.
Island Seniors Board Member Katie Reid said “the senior population has been promised more space” and a better building for the past decade. But council continually delays the project. She urged them to move forward and soon.
Chet Sadler said the Sanibel Recreation Center should be “re-imagined” and the senior center and recreation center should be brought together.
The current Center4Life building is facing demolition and Tommy Williams suggested it would be a perfect location for the new police department, which council voted to build. He said the former bank building could function as some city hall offices, which have been characterized as functionally obsolete.
The importance of the Shared Use Path was discussed by Tom Sharbaugh on behalf of the Sanibel Bike Club. He said there should be a high priority placed on the path system, as it speaks to the island’s small town character and is complimentary to the environment and a healthy lifestyle. Therefore, it goes beyond city infrastructure.
There were some residents who spoke out against the mask mandate at city-owned properties. Jude Sincoske said concerns voiced about the mandate seem to be dismissed by council and “told we are in the minority and the average age of the island is 67.”
“In addition, we receive replies to our concerns where council members use terms such as ‘anti-masker’ and ‘anti-vaxxer’,” said Sincoske. “Calling people names and using these labels is childish and divisive. We are treated as adversaries rather than constituents.”
Sincoske said the community can not move forward until the city council recognizes and respects the rights of all individuals.
Traffic, noise and reliable internet service were additional matters mentioned in written public comment.
Among all the matters raised, it was two of the youngest speakers, Summer Kilgore Mendez and Kari Wheeler, who said they feel there has been a change in the island community in which they grew up and come to love. And it’s not for the better.
“What’s on my heart is there is so much awesomeness to the island, but we’ve lost a part of the community,” said Wheeler. “I fear the small-town connections are being lost.”
Mendez said she is who she is today because of the community. She told council members the senior population has a valuable role in the community, but there is not the same focus on families.
“The majority might be seniors, snowbirds and retirees….(but) pour what you have into the next generation so these kids can have the same passion I have to keep Sanibel special and unique,” said Mendez.
Councilman John Henshaw, who was the catalyst for the workshop, said he was “very pleased with the turnout at Tuesday’s town hall gathering” and wished to “thank all speakers and participants for their valued input regarding issues that impact our community and our sanctuary island.”
He also said his “intention is we hold these town halls on a regular basis, so citizens have a greater chance to voice their concerns, provide input to city leadership and participate in our representative form of government.”
Full audio of the workshop can be heard here, and written public comments can also be viewed. The council’s strategic planning retreat will be March 12 and March 16.