Who Is Committee of the Islands? Then, and Now

by Barbara Joy Cooley

Barbara Joy Cooley

Years ago, when I was beginning my first term as president of the Committee of the Islands, I immersed myself in COTI’s history to ensure that I had a good understanding of the organization’s 35 years. Now, as I look back in time during the year of COTI’s 45th anniversary — and on the dedication and achievements of its 700-plus members — it is time to reflect again: who is COTI?

The answer is rooted both in history and in the present. Many longtime islanders know that COTI emerged from the effort to incorporate Sanibel as an independent city to protect it against overdevelopment by the county. The two groups that were working diligently for the city to incorporate – the Sanibel Planning Board and Sanibel Tomorrow — actually merged to form the Committee of the Islands after their incorporation efforts succeeded.

These people were concerned about Lee County plans to allow for ten times more housing units on Sanibel than the number that currently exists. Under these plans, the total population of the island was projected to be 90,000. Imagine the traffic congestion that would have created. Imagine how much paradise would have been paved. Imagine the loss of wildlife habitat.

People who join COTI today want to protect Sanibel from the ravages of overdevelopment, and to ensure the maintenance of policies that protect the island’s sanctuary character.

The increasing COTI membership means that more and more people believe in the COTI mission of protecting the environment, preserving the island’s sanctuary character, and ensuring the continuity of good local government.

Unlike other local nonprofit organizations, COTI is a registered political committee, not a charity. In fact, COTI is the oldest continuously existing registered political committee in the county. While it is political, it is also non-partisan. (COTI is also a registered nonprofit corporation with the State of Florida.)

Why is being a registered political committee important? It means in that beyond working through our elected and appointed officials on a day to day basis, COTI can participate meaningfully in the electoral process on behalf of its members by supporting important ballot issues like the People’s Choice Charter amendments (2005) and qualified local office seekers who share our values. And it means transparency: all money received and spent by COTI is reported as part of the electoral process.

By July 21, 1975, Sanibel Tomorrow and the Sanibel Planning Board no longer existed; instead, the active participants of both groups incorporated as the Committee of the Islands. It functioned as both an advocate for island preservation and a political committee, right from the start.

As founding Committee of the Islands board member Milena Eskew once said, “The businesses had a group, the Chamber of Commerce, to represent their interests. The realtors had an organization to represent their interests. We needed a group to represent the interests of the residents of the islands, and that is what the Committee of the Islands became.”

The county tried to suppress the emergence of Sanibel as a city by thwarting the new municipality from collecting tax revenue. The city nearly went bankrupt. But 124 people, many of them members of the Committee of the Islands, advanced over $300,000 to the new city to keep it afloat.

The new city was swamped with applications for building permits. To deal with the initial deluge of requests for building permits, the Committee of the Islands developed and promoted a rate of growth ordinance in 1978. Its purpose served, it was later repealed when the pace of growth was brought under control. In 1979, Porter Goss – Sanibel’s first mayor — addressed the board members of the Committee of the Islands to urge them to play a strong role in the November 1980 election.

In the years since, the Committee of the Islands has continued to develop and promote political and governmental tools for protecting Sanibel: the Dark Skies ordinance, the Forever Wild Charter amendment, Pond Apple Park, and the People’s Choice Charter amendments, to name just a few.

Protecting Sanibel from overdevelopment – while allowing for development that honors the city’s Vision Statement and the Sanibel Plan – requires vigilance and effort by all islanders. While large, massive changes may no longer be possible on Sanibel, the smaller, cumulative changes can still threaten to irrevocably alter our environment. The need for vigilance and effort remains.

The Committee of the Islands has sought, throughout its 39-year history, to provide an organization through which these efforts can be focused. COTI has helped create and protect that legacy of a special, sanctuary island for future generations. People who join COTI understand that it is their responsibility to leave this legacy for the next generation, and that legacy is a Sanibel that continues to control growth, protect wildlife, preserve land, and save our coastal waters.

So the past and present both answer the question, “Who is the Committee of the Islands?” The answer remains: Residents, property owners, visitors, and business people of Sanibel who want to keep Sanibel special.

Comments (2)

  1. Great article Barbara. Appreciated the history.

  2. Excellent writing as usual.

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