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Will county leaders listen to upset Sanibel and Captiva islanders?

Lee County leaders are planning to do away with language that currently restrict heights of homes on Captiva Island to two-stories. Islanders fear the charm will be lost and they will be in harm's way as more people pack onto the island.

Hurricane-weary residents of Sanibel and Captiva islands are expected to fill the chambers of the Board of County Commissioners Wednesday. Once again, they are asking that their concerns be heard when it comes to building back in a manner that is more resilient to more intense storms, but also keeps with the islands’ environmentally-friendly, low-density charm.

The county maintains it is taking steps to build a more resilient Captiva Island when it took the initial steps over the summer by adopting new, more permissive height restrictions. Homes, county leaders say, need to be higher to accommodate federal flood maps. By-and-large, islanders agree, but say there must be a limit, and they fear the county will cave to the demands of developers.

The September decision came in spite of near-unanimous opposition from islanders to a plan that would do away with height limitations that bound homes to no more than two stories of habitable space.

Sanibel and Captiva are interconnected by an 18 and ½ mile road that runs through the islands. Though the county does not govern Sanibel, like it does Captiva, any decisions the county makes regarding height and density will impact Sanibel Island.

The county also gave a nod to owners of South Seas Island Resort to no longer be bound to the same density restrictions that have governed all of Captiva for decades. Under that restriction, there could not be more than three units per acre. This includes homes and condominiums, as well as hotel rooms.

The backlash to the amendments was as expected – strong. Attorneys are weighing in. Adam Botana, a local member of the Lee County delegation of the Florida electors, has agreed to sponsor a bill that could stymie, or at least hold up the process of allowing for buildings up to 75 feet in height on the tip of Captiva.

“It’s a horrible idea. Anyone who lived through [Hurricane] Ian would get it.”
Richard Grosso

Wednesday’s meeting of the Lee County Board of County Commissioners to remove any language that states homes must be limited to two-stories is the second part of processes to make the Lee County Comprehensive Land Use Plan consistent with what was approved in September, county officials say.

It’s what the county doesn’t say that has many worried. The amendment being voted on Wednesday repeals the standards that specified the number of stories and set a maximum height of 28 feet above flood elevation and replaces it with no standard. This effectively grants the county complete discretion, attorneys and leaders of multiple civic and environmental organizations say.

In years past, a committee of residents on the Captiva Panel held sway as an advisory board when it came to governing matters on the island. The panel has not been called upon in the post-Hurricane Ian world and that has residents fuming.

Bruce McDonald told Florida Rep. Botana and other members of the Lee County delegation that he chose to live on Captiva because of its low-density charm.

“It’s not Marco Island. It’s the exact opposite and that’s how we want to keep it,” McDonald said.

Attorney Richard Grosso has analyzed Lee’s amendments on behalf of several Captiva entities and sent letters to state and county leaders urging them to do the same.

Allowing for a third-story of livable space allows for a 50 percent increase in density. The amendments also could allow South Seas to build up to 75 feet above base flood elevation.

“The language that is being removed is what kept the density,” Grosso told WGCU News recently. “By taking it out you are allowing the county to approve higher density.

“It’s a horrible idea. Anyone who lived through [Hurricane] Ian would get it.”

Several agencies within the state must sign onto the plan, which most did. The exception was the state’s land planning agency. The Department of Commerce came down hard on the county in October when it said the South Seas exemption had nothing to do with resiliency and everything to do with increasing density on the island.

“The amendment appears to fly a false flag of “resilience” as primary purpose. When in reality the amendment is clearly at least in part for the purpose of an increase in hotel room density,” the letter states. “Whether or not an increase in hotel room density is appropriate is for the community to decide. Rather we are simply urging you to have a transparent discussion with the community about the actual purpose of the amendment.”

The Wednesday meeting begins at 9:30 a.m. in the county chamber, 2115 Second St. Fort Myers. The meeting is open to the public. It may also be viewed LeeTV, at www.leegov.com or via the county’s livestream at www.youtube.com/@LeeCountyFLBOCC.

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Copyright 2023 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Eileen Kelley