The Virtue of Clear Commitments By Larry Schopp , Board Member , Committee of the Islands , as published in the Island Reporter and Island Sun , January 4 , 2013 What lesson from the U.S . Constitution applies to a recent City Council decision on preserving our beaches ? Answer : One that teaches us the importance of clear and unambiguous commitments – something that is lacking in the policy the City Council recently adopted . Let’s take a look . When the United States Constitution was drafted , the need for clarity was a given . What would be the point in writing a constitution for a new nation that was ambiguous ? Granted , even seemingly clear words can sometimes mean different things to different people . However , the framers - who wrote clearly and eloquently - sought to minimize the likelihood that that would happen . Just look at the First Amendment as an example : “ Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion , or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ; or abridging the freedom of speech , or of the press ; or of the right of the people to peacefully assemble , and to petition the government for a redress of grievances . ” Clear as those words are we know that the government may prohibit us from shouting “ fire ” in a crowded theatre . Just as we know that libeling someone could make us liable for damages in a lawsuit . Those , however , are exceptions . The protections of the First Amendment are seldom compromised . But what would happen if we were to change the wording just a little , and the First Amendment instead read : “ Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion , or unreasonably prohibiting the free exercise thereof … . ” The insertion of one adverb qualifier would make the right to the free exercise of religion a lot less clear . What would be a reasonable restriction on the free exercise of religion ? Who would say ? The mere insertion of the qualification diminishes the right guaranteed . What is clear is that under my slightly modified First Amendment , Congress could enact some laws prohibiting the free exercise of religion ; we just don’t know when or why . That’s the mischief in making qualified commitments . The discussion will tend to center on whether the qualifier has been met . The sanctity of the commitment itself would be lost . More than historical interest The discussion is of more than historical interest . It has implications for all legislative enactments . And with its recent ruling , the Sanibel City Council had the opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to the preservation of Sanibel’s beaches as vital habitat for wildlife .The issue came up as the Council was debating final language during its periodic review and update of the Sanibel Plan . The provision in question ( Part 3.2 Policy 7.1 ) was intended to replace an abandoned commitment to a “ beach carrying capacity ” study . Many of us had hoped that short of a carrying capacity study , the Council would at least make an unambiguous commitment to protect the island’s natural beaches as wildlife habitat . The Planning Commission had at first proposed the following unobjectionable provision : “ Development , redevelopment and commercial activity shall not degrade use of the beach as habitat for indigenous and migratory wildlife . ” A last - minute change Then , at the last minute , the Commission decided on a change so that only activities that “ significantly ” degrade the use of the beach as habitat would be prohibited . Committee of the Islands advised the City Council that we found the new language deficient because it watered down an otherwise unambiguous commitment to the point where Sanibel Plan would actually condone all but major encroachments on the beach . At the Council’s invitation , we proposed the following simple , unambiguous sentence : “ Development , redevelopment and commercial activity shall not diminish the usefulness of the beach as habitat for indigenous and migratory wildlife . ” The city staff , for reasons that are not clear , instead suggested only that the word “ measurably ” be substituted for “ significantly ” without explaining how the insertion of either qualifier would strengthen the protection of the beaches as wildlife habitat as compared to the language Committee of the Islands had proposed . The use of either qualifier makes it more difficult to oppose any given encroachment on the beach because ( 1 ) the debate will focus on whether the qualifier applies or not , with little or no attention paid to cumulative effects ; and ( 2 ) those challenging the activity would have to prove a “ measurable ” degradation of the use of the beach as wildlife habitat in order to succeed . How does one prove that use of the beach as wildlife habitat has been “ measurably ” degraded unless the damage has already been done - That is to say the wildlife species in question no longer inhabits the beach or uses it to breed ? A disappointing result We should all be disappointed that the City Council adopted the qualified language put forth by staff . Instead of a firm commitment to preserve the natural beaches as habitat for wildlife we have been given an ambiguous policy which does little to further that end . Something tells me the founding fathers would not have approved . Committee of the Islands invites your input and ideas on this important subject . Email your comments to coti @ coti.org . You can read commentaries on other island issues on our website at coti.org and / or visit us on Facebook .