by SC Publisher Shannen Hayes
While the City of Sanibel is preparing to lift the hurricane reentry pass restriction at the first of the year, reopening to the general public is more about aiding recovery than attracting visitors to the island. The beaches, boat ramp, and fishing pier are expected to be closed, if the pass restriction is lifted Jan. 2, 2023.
There will not be much for visitors to do or see when the pass restriction is lifted in January 2023, Sanibel City Manager Dana Souza noted in today’s special city council meeting. Many island businesses will still be closed, too.
“We are not encouraging visitors,” Souza said. “This is about the continuation of recovery for businesses and residents. It’s about general access to the island, without the passes, to help with our recovery.”
Sanibel has only been accessible by those with a hurricane reentry pass in the three months since being devastated by Hurricane Ian. In that time, the city has issued nearly 21,000 passes to residents, businesses and insurance professionals. But that is becoming increasingly difficult for the city, as the community moves deeper into the storm recovery process.
The city has met its reopening benchmarks of debris collection, repair of the East Periwinkle bridge, sufficient police security, traffic not impeding causeway construction and a majority of the power pole replacement work completed by LCEC. And now, the pass restriction has become more of a hindrance to recovery efforts.
“We have consistently discussed the criteria for reopening, which has been reached,” said Mayor Holly Smith. “(Reopening) is not about tourism; it’s about recovery. If we don’t recover as a community, we will be in a lot of trouble as a city.”
Smith added these decisions are not easy, but they “are made with the greater good of the community in mind.” The reopening date comes with government funding for the city at stake and the need for better access to the island for those aiding in the recovery efforts of businesses and residents.
Souza and council recognized there are people for and against the reopening date. Councilman Scott Crater expressed his concerns over it, which included residents’ security worries and the closed beaches.
The Sanibel Police Department received 59 burglary reports in the past 10 weeks, when the average is three burglaries per year. The police department is receiving aid from other law enforcement agencies at least through January 2023 and numerous officers constantly patrol the island.
Crater acknowledged looting comes with the situation, but felt a 12-month security plan is needed before lifting the pass restriction, since many homes will be under construction for the next year, at least. He also cited approximately 500 emails sent to city officials reflecting 4:1 against reopening on Jan. 2.
“I understand larger issues are at stake,” he said, “but when residents express concerns to that extent, it’s hard for me to contravene that.”
Crater added he would be in favor of pushing the reopening date to mid-January so a more long-term security plan can be developed and the beaches could be reopened to generate revenue for the city and give people a place to go on the island.
Souza explained accessibility is one of the challenges to reopening certain public areas and another is the city’s inability to process public parking fees, since most of the payment stations were destroyed by the storm. However, a new mobile payment system was approved Dec. 6 by council in its regular meeting.
Consensus among the council on lifting the hurricane reentry pass restriction Jan. 2, 2023 was 4-1 with Crater against.
In other announcements:
Curfew remains in place from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. until further notice.
Beach Parking Stickers – The sale or renewal of beach parking stickers is on hold until the beach facilities are ready to open. Although, a reopening date has not been set.
Causeway Traffic – The Sanibel Causeway traffic report from Dec. 3-19 shows the number of vehicles crossing the bridge averages 5,000 per day through the week with it dropping to 3,500 and 2,500 on Saturdays and Sundays respectively.
Souza noted the traffic delays on Dec. 16 and Dec. 17 were due to work by the Florida Department of Transportation reducing traffic to one lane. He said the city has coordinated with FDOT and will be more proactive with bridge work announcements in the future.
Mail Service – The U.S. Postal Service is still expected to resume mail delivery some time in January.
Farmer’s Market – A scaled-down Sanibel Farmer’s Market could be restarting on Sundays in January. A permit application has been submitted, but the location is up in the air. More details will be released when they are available.