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Original Issue

Island paradise, perhaps

Can a 14-month-old offshore Florida city, which has faced lawsuits and insolvency, retain its goal of ecology first, development second?

Porter Goss, the mayor of the newly incorporated island city of Sanibel, Fla., is fond of showing visitors to his office a brochure for a condominium resort called the Sundial Beach Hotel and Tennis Club. The brochure features this smashing color photograph: in the foreground, a shell-strewn beach; in the background, massive buildings looming starkly against a turquoise sky. The perspective of the picture makes it evident that the photographer shot it while lying on his stomach in the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, the effect is somewhat marred by an inscription that is faintly discernible on one of the shells. It appears to read "$1.75."

To Goss' mind the use of store-bought shells in a publicity photo smacks of the exploitation and commercialism that on Nov. 5, 1974 led Sanibel to vote to "secede" from Lee County (SI, Feb. 3, 1975) in order, according to the city charter, "to have the rights of the planning for the orderly future development of an island community known far and wide for its unique natural environment."

Moreover, Goss, a 37-year-old former CIA man whose senior thesis at Yale was on ancient Greek lyric poets, is not favorably disposed toward condominiums such as the Sundial. "We don't want any more condominiums on the water," he says. "There is only one place you can't walk on the beach on Sanibel, and that's where the sea wall of a condominium has led to the erosion of the beach."

Lying a few miles off Fort Myers, Sanibel comprises nearly 11,000 acres, more than half of them in the J.N. (Ding) Darling National Wildlife Refuge, and has a population of 8,000. It is justly renowned for its shells, beaches and wildlife. Three hundred species of birds, 70 of marine fish, 24 of reptiles and amphibians and 12 of mammals—including the armadillo and opossum, which were not present before the three-mile causeway to the mainland opened in 1963—have been identified.

The impetus for the home-rule referendum was a building boom in 1973-74 that threatened the ecologically sensitive beach, wetland and mangrove areas as well as the island's amenities. The alternative was scary: the zoning and development criteria of Lee County, which administered Sanibel, provided for a whopping 35,000 residential units (there are now 4,000), with almost no policies or performance standards for protecting the environment.

One of the first acts of Mayor Goss and his four fellow unsalaried city councilmen was to declare a moratorium on all construction until a comprehensive land-use plan was drawn up and approved. Before this could be undertaken, Walter Condon, an off-island developer, initiated a suit—which he eventually lost—challenging the legal existence of the city, whereupon Sanibel's Bank of the Islands said it could not go through with a loan to the city of $250,000 to cover operating expenses.

Since Sanibel was not yet eligible for revenue sharing and was legally prohibited from collecting property taxes until the beginning of the next fiscal year (October 1975), it appeared that the city might founder before it was properly launched. But as soon as its plight became known, offers of assistance poured in. "And not from a bunch of millionaires," Goss says. "One of the first was Gloria Berry, who was working in the post office on the adjoining island of Captiva. She pledged her life savings of $1,000 with no strings attached." When the council advertised for pledges for the purchase of tax anticipation notes, the $250,000 was raised within 72 hours. "We had to turn people down," says Goss. "The city ought to erect a statue of Condon. He was so obviously hostile to what we're trying to do that he became a target the people could rally against. As corny as it sounds, he made us fighting mad."

Sanibel will need to retain this edge, for there have been and will be other suits from disgruntled developers, but if the courts uphold the will of the voters, their experiment in home rule will have nationwide repercussions. It will be the first time an economically and racially diverse community will have regulated its growth largely for environmental reasons.

To this end, last May Sanibel engaged the Philadelphia firm of Wallace, McHarg, Roberts and Todd, a pioneer in environmental studies, to draw up its land-use plan. On Dec. 1 WMRT produced a 239-page $106,000 report. It deals with everything from mosquito control to provisions that no exotic species may be planted that might displace a native species to the evacuation of the island in case of a hurricane.

The heart of the plan is the recommendation limiting growth to 6,000 residential units, because "the natural environments of Sanibel are fragile and dynamic [and] have been degraded by urbanization, and if current trends were to continue, the natural amenities...would be greatly damaged." In order to protect the beaches, wetlands and mangroves, the plan either prohibits development in these zones or severely restricts it.

Addressing itself to tourism, the economic base of the island, the report says, "The beaches, natural areas [and] shelling represent the attraction of tourists to the island. As long as these...remain there is every basis to expect that the tourist economy will remain vibrant. The situation of Miami Beach is a case in point. [It] developed a vibrant tourist economy based on the natural beauty of the area and the warm winters. As the natural beauty waned with age and 'walling off the beach' the tourist economy lost its vitality, so that now casino gambling and extensive conventioneering are being pursued to revitalize tourism. Sanibel has the advantage of being able to learn from the mistakes of other tourist areas, and the lesson is very clear—protect the resources that generate economic viability in the first place."

According to Goss, Sanibel has Florida's highest hotel occupancy rate, 90% being typical during the winter. If the 6,000-residential-unit limit is approved, WMRT believes Sanibel could safely add 300 tourist units to its existing 898.

Goss hopes they will not be provided by any of the motel chains, at least one of which is considering development in the wetland area. The other day Goss showed a visitor an artist's rendition of the projected motel, which depicts a vaguely Jamaican structure fronted by a large pond upon which small boats ply.

"I've never seen that pond," the visitor remarked.

"Because it doesn't exist," Goss said, contemplating the dire consequences of creating an artificial pond in the wetlands. "I'm against chains on Sanibel because they'll exploit the island for the chains' benefit. The next thing you know they'll advertise, 'Come to beautiful Sanibel and dance to the lilting strains of....' Oh, well, another lawsuit.

"This isn't an environmental-nut island. This is a bona fide community of very special people, including poor whites and blacks. We don't want to become a Hobe Sound. Our intent is not exclusionary. We're trying to do something that's never been done before, but can we legally put it together? The issues are clear. Being an island, the boundaries are clear. The will of the people is clear. Sanibel could be one of the great Supreme Court test cases of all time.

"We're not an Orwellian, big-brother city. We're trying to maintain a low-profile government, trying not to pass Mickey Mouse, old-fogey laws. There's a little Thoreau here. And there's a tremendous amount of support from the residents. Ten percent of them are on voluntary committees—the Vegetation Committee, the Historical Committee, the Sign Committee. Nonetheless we found out that even though we won, we can't do everything we want."

Indeed, the Sanibel Planning Commission, faced with a barrage of appeals from dissatisfied property owners and developers, may have to raise the density allocation from 6,000 to 7,500 units, although if that increase goes through, even more stringent performance standards will be required in some cases. "In those areas where we can accommodate people without jeopardy, we will," says Planning Commissioner Duane White. "But if it is clearly demonstrated that the planning commission must make a choice between the desires of the individual and the protection of the island, then the island will win."