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Close call for the will of the people on Sanibel

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April 13, 2012

Close call for the will of the people on Sanibel By Larry Schopp , Board Member , Committee of the Islands ( published April 13 , 2012 , in the Island Reporter and Island Sun newspapers ) As anniversaries go , number seven doesn’t usually get much attention . This year it should . It was seven years ago that Sanibel citizens went to the polls and adopted the “ Peoples Choice ” amendments to the Sanibel City Charter , and there is reason to take special note this year because we came very close to losing those amendments – through an act of the Florida State Legislature that put them in jeopardy . More about that in a moment , but first a little background on the Charter amendments … . The “ Peoples Choice ” amendments were about the fundamental right of citizens , by means of referendum at the polls , to prevent or undo unwise or unpopular decisions of their elected officials . The means of ensuring such referenda was to enshrine critical land - use protections in the Sanibel Charter , which would render them unchangeable without a vote of the people . The Charter amendments were written by members of Committee of the Islands to help insure that Sanibel’s small - town , sanctuary character would never be compromised over the objection of its citizens . The formula is simple : There can be no weakening of fundamental land - use restrictions on ( 1 ) building height , ( 2 ) residential density or ( 3 ) clearance and coverage of building lots , without voter approval . The campaign for passage Even a highly successful petition drive to put the amendments on the ballot was no guarantee they would be passed . During a hard - fought campaign for votes , a recurring argument against the amendments was that they were unnecessary because bureaucrats in the Florida Department of Community Affairs – which had oversight over local land - use policy under the Growth Management Act – would provide all the protection necessary . Those of us who wrote and believed strongly in the amendments were not persuaded . We asked why Sanibel residents should trust the vagaries of state law or the state bureaucratic process to protect their vital interests . Instead we proposed that the people themselves could do it more reliably by simply amending the City Charter . A majority of Sanibel voters apparently felt the same way and voted “ yes ” on the amendments . In addition to giving citizens the peace of mind of knowing they are in control of their own destiny , at least on major land - use issues , the Charter amendments contained language which enabled action by the City Council on two long - neglected issues , post disaster build - back and redevelopment – both of which have now been addressed . Changes in the wind Now let’s fast forward to Tallahassee in early 2011 where major changes were in the wind . Under the banner of job creation , economic growth and reduced state regulation , the state legislature scrapped the Growth Management Act of 1985 and replaced it with a much more development - friendly “ Community Planning Act . ” It also dismantled the Department of Community Affairs and replaced it with a relatively toothless “ Department of Economic Opportunity . ” These were fundamental changes in the state’s approach to land - use regulation that few would have anticipated a few years ago . The argument against reliance on state bureaucrats to protect Sanibel’s character proved prophetic . For all intents and purposes , state oversight of the local comprehensive planning process is over . The very state law and state agency that opponents said made the “ Peoples Choice ” amendments unnecessary are now gone and the focus at the state level is once again on growth – not growth management . Attack attempted on citizens ’ rights But that’s not all that happened . A year earlier , citizens concerned about overdevelopment had tried , unsuccessfully , to enact a “ hometown democracy ” amendment to the state constitution that would have required voter approval of all comprehensive plan amendments . Subsequently the legislature , in what appeared to be a punitive overreaction to this failed effort - - prohibited “ any referendum or initiative process in regard to any … local comprehensive plan amendment . ” In other words , the prohibition abolished the right of citizens statewide to reverse unwise or unpopular land use decisions made by local governing bodies ! Since the “ Peoples Choice ” amendments could trigger a vote on changes to the Sanibel Plan which would involve building height or residential density , they were in potential conflict with state law and likely unenforceable – a major setback for the right of self determination for Sanibel citizens . End of story ? That might have been the sad end of the story but for one final twist , involving the tiny north Florida town of Yankeetown . Like Sanibel , Yankeetown had a charter provision that required voter approval of certain comprehensive plan amendments and it was not about to give that up without a fight . It retained Lee County attorney Ralf Brookes , who went to state court and challenged , on several grounds , the constitutionality of the new Community Planning Act . The people in power in Tallahassee were understandably concerned . The Community Planning Act was a major legislative enactment and they were reluctant to risk a successful court challenge . So , with a nod of approval from the legislative leadership , attorneys for the state agreed to a settlement by which the legislature would do some back - peddling and “ grandfather ” any local charter provision like Yankeetown’s or , for that matter , Sanibel’s . And that’s just what happened . With little fanfare , the following new language was recently added to the Community Planning Act’s sweeping prohibition of referenda on plan amendments : “ However , any local government charter provision which was in effect on June 1 , 2011 , for an initiative or referendum process in regard to … local comprehensive plan amendments … may be retained and implemented . ” This legislation passed by overwhelming majorities in both houses and was signed by Governor Scott on April 6 . So , whether or not Sanibel’s “ Peoples Choice ” charter amendments are in conflict with state law has become a moot question thanks to the Yankeetown case . If our amendments were in conflict , they no longer are . They are grandfathered and fully enforceable , as written . And that’s the end of the story . Happy seventh anniversary ! Committee of the Islands invites your input and ideas on this important subject . Please email your comments to coti @ . You can read commentaries on other island issues on our website at and / or visit Committee of the Islands on Facebook .

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