The Story of Sanibel and the Committee of the Islands: Inextricably Linked
The Committee of the Islands was founded in 1975 by those inspired individuals who helped incorporate Sanibel as an independent, self- governing city within Lee County. Here is the history of that founding....
The Committee of the Islands -- COTI -- is as old as the City of Sanibel. It emerged from the effort to incorporate Sanibel as an independent city to protect it against overdevelopment by the county. In fact, the two groups that were strongly advocating incorporation actually merged to form the Committee of the Islands after their incorporation efforts succeeded.
Before incorporation, there was a Sanibel Planning Board whose members 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, and high-rise, high-density development would have been permitted. There were even plans for a four-lane highway down the middle of the island.
Residents were moved to action. After all, Sanibel had been designated as a “sanctuary island,” and the county’s plans were not consistent with that designation.
At that time (1974), a group called Sanibel Tomorrow had formed to work actively for Sanibel’s incorporation. It was led by a woman named Zelda “Zee” Butler. The group succeeded on November 5, 1974, when 84 percent of Sanibel’s electorate went to the polls and 63.6 percent of them voted for Sanibel to incorporate. The next week, on November 1, Zee resigned from Sanibel Tomorrow so that she could run for the first Sanibel City Council.
First City Council is Endorsed
The new chair of Sanibel Tomorrow, Bill Kimball, appointed Arthur Hunter as Sanibel Tomorrow's Special Campaign Chairman, and the group endorsed five candidates for Council. By the end of the year, the Sanibel Planning Board dissolved and pledged $5000 of its funds to Sanibel Tomorrow to assist with the campaign.
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 says, “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.”
On December 3, 1974, Porter Goss, Vernon MacKenzie, Zee Butler, Charles LeBuff, and Francis Bailey were elected to the first Sanibel City Council.
A Plan is born
One of the first acts of the new City Council was to lay out a land plan and development code appropriate to the environmental requirements of this unique barrier island. The result was the innovative Sanibel Plan which embodied the view that by virtue of Sanibel’s remarkable natural bounty, development should be far less intense than county commissioners had contemplated and should be carried out in a way that provides maximum protection to environmentally sensitive areas like mangroves and wetlands while allowing for a greater human imprint on less sensitive areas like upland ridges.
That philosophy remains at the heart of the Sanibel Plan today and is implemented by regulations in the Land Development code.
Residents contribute $300,000
Many permits previously issued by Lee County did not meet Sanibel’s new code, resulting in numerous lawsuits.
In its first year, due to lawsuits and actions of the Lee County Commission, the city of Sanibel was not able to collect taxes and nearly went bankrupt. But 124 people, many of them members of the Committee of the Islands, gave over $300,000 to the new city to keep it afloat.
The new city was swamped with applications for building permits, mostly for single-family houses. By April 1976, over three hundred permits were issued. The new City of Sanibel was feeling overwhelmed.
On April 21, 1976, Col. Edwin Reed, the chair of the Committee of the Islands, wrote to Porter Goss to say that the Committee was willing to help the city “make the islands a better place to live.” Col. Reed added, “As you may know, the object, function and scope of this organization is to promote a continuity of good local government and to give aid to all public officials charged with the direction of projects or improvements. We are ready and willing. Please call on us.”
To deal with the initial swamp of requests for building permits, the Committee of the Islands developed and promoted the Rate of Growth Ordinance in 1978. In 1979, Porter Goss addressed the board members of the Committee of the Islands to urge them to play a strong role in the November 1980 election. The Committee did so; in fact, at that time it went so far as to place an advertisement in the Island Reporter to endorse candidates for Lee County Property Appraiser, Tax Collector, County Commissioners, School Board, and Hospital Board.
How the Comittee has fought to keep Sanibel Special
Since its organization, COTI has been committed to defending the Sanibel Plan and Land Development Code, both designed to preserve and protect our island. Here are some of COTI's contributions:
- Charter Amendments. In 2005 Committee members wrote and successfully sponsored the “Peoples’ Choice” charter amendments, which protect Sanibel from a weakening of its basic land-use regulations (building height, residential density and ground coverage) without prior voter approval.
- Sanibel Vision Statement. COTI led the successful effort to have the Sanibel Vision Statement, which establishes a source and hierarchy of values for future governmental action, become a part of the City Charter, where it may not be amended without voter approval.
- Post-Disaster Build-Back. Was instrumental in Council's passage of the City's first comprehensive post-disaster build-back ordinance. Now, even owners of non-conforming properties will have the right to build back following a natural disaster.
- Dark Skies. Supported and lobbied for the “Dark Skies” ordinance which brought Sanibel's outdoor lighting code up to the standards of other progressive communities. More recently, COTI opposed a five-year delay in implementing those standards and secured agreement for a more reasonable period of three years.
- Forever Green. Successfully lobbied for the “Forever Green” charter amendment, which requires that environmentally sensitive City lands cannot be sold or disposed of without prior voter approval.
- Pond Apple Park. Opposed the creation of a major resort and shopping center at the intersection of Bailey Road and Periwinkle. The shopping center plan was abandoned and subsequently, after a voter referendum, the City acquired the tract, which is now Pond Apple Park.
- Resort Redevelopment/ Actively supported revisions to the Land Development Code which provide the essential ground rules for redevelopment of aging structures in the Resort Housing District.
- Architectural Standards. Urged the City Council to develop architectural standards for resorts undergoing redevelopment. That effort evolved into even broader debate and broader legislation that now establishes architectural and design standards for development and redevelopment of all multifamily, commercial and institutional buildings on Sanibel.
- Challenged Oversized Mixed Use Project. Opposed an oversized mixed-use (residential and commercial) project for the former Nave property, which would have necessitated weakening key provisions of the Sanibel Plan and Land Development Code.
- Commercial Buses. Led efforts to restrict the use of commercial buses on Sanibel. Legislation was subsequently enacted to regulate bus parking and loading/unloading in the City's four beach parking lots
- Sightseeing Bus Tours on Sanibel. Opposed the establishment of a proposed tour bus operation on Sanibel. City Council subsequently enacted a rigorous application process requiring a demonstrated need before any additional tour services would be permitted.
- Segways. When the state legislature passed a law preempting Sanibel's prohibition of unsupervised individual use of Segways on the City's shared use paths and roads, the City Council began taking steps to repeal existing applicable City regulations. COTI argued that the safety of Sanibel's citizens and guests should have priority and urged that efforts be made change the state law before changing City ordinances. There has been no recent action, but COTI continues to support state law revision to protect shared path users.
- Questioned a Proposed Civic and Cultural Core Project. When the City proposed the construction of a $42 million Civic and Cultural Core Project on land within an environmentally protected district and took steps to establish a referendum on the public debt that would be needed, COTI publicly questioned various aspects of the project. The referendum and the project were later cancelled.
- Traffic Issues. COTI has participated in the Mayor's traffic working group and has advocated for various steps to reduce island congestion including seasonal pricing for beach parking and causeway tolls, data collection for vehicle traffic times and volume counts, expanded traffic messagingto visitors and limitations on new large special events.
- Water Qualify Issues COTI has supported City and environmental group efforts pertaining to improvement of regional water quality conditions, including supporting the 2017 Senate Bill10 and, after its enactment, supporting acquisition of necessary land areas for adequate water treatment.
- Low Speed Vehicles COTI opposed the approval of an island facility that would have rented “Low Speed Vehicles” (in effect golf carts) for use on city streets that would have exacerbated island traffic congestion.
- Lee County 20/20 Land Acquisition Program The organization supported the continuation of Lee County's 20/20 land acquisition program and has specifically advocated for the acquisition of certain land parcels appropriate for environmental preservation.
- Shared Use Path Safety COTI has supported various issues pertaining to safety on the island's shared use paths including improvement of various path intersections and limiting width of cycling vehicles.
- Endorsements COTI supports well-qualified candidates for City Council, not only to urge their election, but also to encourage open debate and the public airing of issues facing the City. Competition for elective office is the very lifeblood of a democratic society, because it stirs such debate.
A consistent voice for Sanibel values
Since its founding in 1975, the Committee of the Islands has provided a consistent voice in support of Sanibel's core values - its small town character, environmental preservation, and wildlife conservation as expressed in the Sanibel Vision Statement, Plan, and Land Development Code.
There are many fine organizations on Sanibel which care deeply about the same issues as COTI. We have over the years worked with them and City Council – and with our members and friends and all those who share our values – in fulfillment of the COTI Mission: To help ensure the continuity of good local government, to protect the environment, and to preserve the sanctuary character of our barrier island community.
The Committee of the Islands meets regularly and encourages Sanibel residents to join and become active in its committees, which focus on land use, the environment, and various aspects of City government. For more information, see www.coti.org or visit Committee of the Islands on Facebook.