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Sanibel’s success as a city credited to incorporation

By Staff | Nov 18, 2009

In an appropriate setting for learning, 25 participants sat quietly at their desks inside the Old Sanibel Schoolhouse, listening intently to the lecture delivered by Alex Werner about the 20th century history of the island – from the post-World War II era migration to the incorporation of the city in 1974 – as part of the second annual “Celebrate Sanibel!” week of activities.

The simple, single-room schoolhouse, nestled within the Sanibel Historic Village & Museum, is adorned with vintage textbooks, desks, toys, a globe and mosquito-swatter, things that folks would typically find inside an educational setting from many decades ago.

But Werner, the ever-affable and always smiling museum president, appeared nothing like the task-master teachers of yonder days.

“Lee County wanted to build 90,000 housing units here on Sanibel. Can you imagine that… 90,000 units?” he asked the group. “Because the people of Sanibel stood up against them, more than 70 percent of the island is still wild and natural.”

Following World War II, many G.I.’s – who passed through Florida during missions abroad – brought their families to the Sunshine State, which witnessed a steady migration of northerners from the late 1940s through the 1950s. According to Werner, that migration progressed down the state along the east coast, where high-rises began popping up from West Palm Beach down to Miami.

Eventually, families – along with developers and real estate speculators – sought out other places to move to. They discovered more large areas of undeveloped land along Florida’s southwest shorelines, in both Naples and Marco Island.

“Have any of you ever gone out on a boat and looked at the southern tip of Marco Island?” Werner asked, noting the number of high-rise buildings constructed there. “It looks like the bow of a battleship… it really does.”

Then, in 1956, Hugo Lindgren saw the potential for development on Sanibel.

Lindgren, who today is known as “Father of the Sanibel Causeway,” was among a group of investors who wanted to bring mass residences, hotels, restaurants and golf courses to the island. In the late 1950s, he asked the Lee County Commission to look into the potential of constructing a bridge linking Fort Myers to Sanibel and Captiva. County leaders not only liked the idea, which came to fruition in 1963, but also wanted a “piece of the pie.” They proposed that the island could be built up to 90,000 units.

Over the next several years, a number of organizations – the Sanibel Island Improvement Association, the Sanibel Island Planning & Zoning District and the Sanibel/Captiva Planning Board – along with conservationist Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, launched a number of campaigns to stop developers in their tracks. During this era, Darling was successful in preventing development of the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge while the newly-formed (in 1967) Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation began buying land that would be set aside for preservation purposes.

By 1973, approximately 2,300 residents were living on Sanibel. Lee County, which had been collecting tolls on the causeway for almost a decade, was about to pay off the bond used to pay for construction of the bridge. Over that decade, they had evenly split the toll proceeds with the island, 50-50.

However, Werner said they still had thoughts of building some 30,000 units on Sanibel.

Before the bond had been fully paid off, the county opted to refinance the project, drawing $20 million which eventually would be put towards the upgrade of local roads and infrastructure along the island corridor, but only on the Fort Myers side of the causeway. They also cut Sanibel’s share of the toll proceeds to just 18 percent.

The island’s citizens fought back, launching the Island Reporter newspaper, establishing a “Home Rule” committee and putting the idea for incorporation on the referendum. On Nov. 5, 1974, almost 85 percent of the island’s registered voters turned out and approved independence, by a vote of 63.6 percent for incorporation and 36.3 percent against.

And the rest, as they say, is history.