by Barbara Joy Cooley
Sanibel Island has about 18.1 square miles of land – similar in size to Manhattan, which has 22.8 square miles. Two-thirds of Sanibel’s land is designated as conservation land, owned by the City of Sanibel, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, the Federal government, or the State of Florida.
The island’s biggest landowner and land manager is the Federal government, with 8 of those 18 square miles. The land use of the remaining 10 square miles is strictly regulated by the City of Sanibel. The guiding document for that control of land use and development is Sanibel’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan, better known simply as the Sanibel Plan.
From its beginning in 1976 (1), the Sanibel Plan has recognized that “unlimited future population growth would be hazardous to health, safety, and welfare of the public.” The plan also notes that restriction of development is needed for “adequate delivery of services and natural resource protection.” This is the rationale for Sanibel’s limit on the total number of dwelling units to 9,000 units. That includes everything residential, from individual hotel rooms to single-family homes.
Sanibel also controls the intensity of use of the land, and it strictly regulates permitted land uses as well as density and coverage of developments on the island. (These controls do not apply to Captiva, which is an unincorporated area governed by Lee County.)
All of that may seem cumbersome, but it is what sets Sanibel apart from most other coastal Florida communities. This special, sanctuary quality that Sanibelians have worked so hard to protect is what draws most visitors to the island. So, Sanibel citizens naturally gasp in horror when an uninformed visitor suggests that the island needs developments such as a miniature golf course or other attractions.
Sanibel citizens have kept a watchful eye over Sanibel. When citizens saw the need for further protections from overdevelopment, they passed charter amendments like Forever Wild, and the People’s Choice amendments. Forever Wild (2000) protects undeveloped lands designated as environmentally sensitive, and the People’s Choice amendments (2005) added the Sanibel land development restrictions on density, coverage, and building height to the city charter so that they could only be changed by the voters, not by a vote of just three members of a city council.
Of course, the Sanibel Plan and land development code could have been inappropriately changed over the years to weaken the approach to controlling development. But that has not happened, because of Sanibel citizens who defend the Sanibel Plan and its vision statement.
Many island visitors, particularly ones who are involved in their own communities, recognize the efforts of Sanibel citizens over the past several decades – efforts that have maintained Sanibel as the sanctuary island that it is. Fortunately, most island visitors are not clamoring for the development of a miniature golf course or similar attractions.
The Sanibel Plan is available online. It has been updated several times over the years; the most recent update was in May 2013. If you live on Sanibel full- or part-time, and you’ve never read it, take some time to peruse the plan – the policies that protect our island. I think you’ll be glad you did.
1.) The Sanibel Plan was initially Adopted July 19, 1976 – Ordinance no. 76-21.