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Public airs concerns over lifting boat dock restrictions along bay

By Staff | Oct 6, 2010

About 40 concerned citizens filled MacKenzie Hall on Tuesday morning, voicing their opinions over the ongoing debate regarding lifting the 17-year restriction on boat docks on properties within the Bay Beach Zone.

In May, the City Council requested that the Planning Commission look into making alterations to the ordinance which prohibits docks, boat davits, boat lifts and mooring pilings within the zone, which extends along the waters of San Carlos Bay and Tarpon Bay west of the Lighthouse to the end of Woodring’s Point. The ban was enacted in order to protect environmentally-sensitive sea grasses.

After the commission passed a resolution at their Sept. 28 meeting, saying that the proposed amended ordinance was inconsistent with the Sanibel Plan. However, they agreed to move the legislation forward for the council to debate its merits or whether to make any changes at all.

During Tuesday’s three-hour-plus session, the council and audience heard a summarization of the events related to why the city was investigating making changes to the policy adopted in 1993 by Ken Cuyler, the city’s attorney. Jimmy Jordan, the city’s Director of Planning, also read some of the details of the proposed resolution.

“Is one of the primary roles of the Planning Commission to determine if Land Development Code changes are consistent with the Sanibel Plan?” Vice Mayor Mick Denham asked Jordan, who replied, “As an advisory committee to the City Council, yes it is.”

Councilman Jim Jennings questioned whether the testimony provided by scientific experts throughout the course of the commission’s deliberations on the matter — which included Dr. Rob Loflin of the city’s Department of Natural Resources and SCCF representatives Rae Ann Wessel and Erick Lindblad — were factual or their opinions. Denham said that he heard opinions on both sides of the issue, and that he trusted the scientific analysis provided by the experts who offered testimony.

“If you live long enough on Sanibel, issues that affect Sanibel become personal to me,” said Denham, who explained that his objection to lifting the restriction on boat docks was “a matter of principle.”

Jennings called the matter “one of the most difficult things we’ve worked on since I’ve been here,” and pledged to listen to both sides of the debate.

Mayor Kevin Ruane told his fellow councilors that he was struggling with the issue of the taking of riparian rights.

“I have an issue with this,” he said. “In my opinion, we took something away without paying for it.”

Opening the floor to public opinion, Lindblad and Wessel were the first to speak. While Wessel showed an aerial image of the Bay Beach Zone, noting areas that were prominent sea grass beds along the now-protected shoreline, Lindblad urged the council to keep the ban in place.

“This isn’t about a few docks — this is about 59 docks,” he said. “There is no doubt that sea grasses are impacted by docks.”

Resident Hazel Schuller questioned what environmental impact the additional boats would have within the zone, while Barbara Joy Cooley, president of the Committee Of The Islands, said that the council’s revisiting of the boat dock restriction was a case of “Deja vu all over again.”

“Are you willing to stand up and fight for this, even though it may not be easy?” Cooley asked the council, adding that “How you vote will show who you are.”

Fellow resident Karen Storjohann, who noted that Sanibel has always been at the forefront of the eco-tourism movement, said, “They talk about what people’s rights are, but not enough about what their responsibilities are.”

Charles Sobczak, author of several island-based books, warned that if the council voted to lift the ban, “Within a decade, without these restrictions, Sanibel could wind up looking like Marco Island.”

Following the statements from attorney Steve Hartsell, the lawyer representing eight property owners impacted by the ban, who said “Not every dock is a threat to sea grasses,” the council weighed in with their assessments.

“You know what the law is,” Peter Pappas told Hartsell. “It’s reason absent of passion. But this island was founded on passion.”

Pappas later called the matter a “defining issue of this community,” adding that — in his opinion — the imposition of the boat dock restriction was “legal and justifiable.”

Hartsell also suggested several changes to the proposed ordinance, including extending the length of boat docks to 175 feet (from 150 feet), lowering the spacing between boards to between 1/4 inch and 1/2 inch (from 1 inch) for safety purposes and that the four foot width restriction should not apply to terminal platforms.

Marty Harrity said that he wanted the Planning Department to provide additional information regarding the current status of sea grass beds within the Bay Beach Zone, along with topographical maps showing the affected area and properties.

“We need some more scientific data before we can say ‘Does it or doesn’t it?'” Harrity stated. “That’s imperative.”

The council will hold a second public hearing on the proposed ordinance on Tuesday, Oct. 19 beginning at 9:15 a.m.