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Annual event celebrates Sanibel’s past, present and future

By Staff | Nov 3, 2010

Sanibel Historical Museum and Village President and Celebrate Sanibel co-chair Alex Werner is pictured at the old schoolhouse at the Village with materials he will be using to present a lecture on the history of events leading up to the formation of the City of Sanibel. Werner’s lecture is only one of many programs and presentations scheduled for the six-day-long Celebrate Sanibel event.

On this day in 1974, more than 1,000 islanders showed up at the Community House to vote on what would — almost four decades later — become one of the most important decisions Sanibelians could ever make.

After 16 years of struggle and fighting off overdevelopment, Nov. 5, 1974 heralded the start of a new age on the island — it was the day that a two-thirds majority of those island residents voted for Sanibel’s incorporation.

Thus, the City of Sanibel was born.

The struggle began on Feb. 8, 1957, at 10 a.m. in Jamestown, N.Y., when Hugo Lindgren proposed a major development plan to connect Sanibel to Punta Rassa and Charlotte Harbor with a super-causeway and develop enough property to accommodate 100,000 people, said Sanibel Historical Museum and Village President Alex Werner.

“That was the beginning of the struggle in terms of trying to keep massive development off this island,” Werner said.

An aerial photograph taken of Casa Ybel Road in 1957 before development.

Three years ago, Werner sat down with John Harries, then president of the Committee of the Islands, and came up with a plan to commemorate the City’s birthday.

The result — Celebrate Sanibel, a week-long line-up of events chronicling the island’s fight to fend off development and preserve the natural beauty of the barrier island.

“John and I wanted to continue Porter Goss’ legacy and try to educate the public, especially the residents, as to what they have here on Sanibel, why they have it and how they can continue to have it,” Werner said, noting that it was Porter Goss, Sanibel’s first mayor, who spearheaded the incorporation of the island. “In his honor, we decided to continue the celebration of Sanibel — which is the incorporation of the City — and the Sanibel Land Management Plan, which is known as the Sanibel Plan — a blue-ribbon, nationally recognized land management program.”

Land management, Werner continued, is a critical part of what makes Sanibel the paradise it is today.

“It’s not the houses that drive up property values on Sanibel — it’s the lack of density, sharing your habitat with wildlife and of course, all the friendly and giving people that make up this community. We share the island with wildlife and it’s one of the unique features of this island. Today, because of the successes of the City and the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation and many other organizations, roughly 70 percent of the island is forever wild,” Werner said. “We truly have a gem here. Keeping the low-rises, low density, management of vegetation and wildlife is all due to the City Council and the organizations that have set up here.”

Marybel Benzrihem shows off the beautiful sandal necklace that Congress Jewelers is donating to the Celebrate Sanibel raffle. Raffle tickets will be available at Celebrate Sanibel events throughout the week.

To recognize the efforts of the many 501-c-3 nonprofits that operate on the islands, Celebrate Sanibel will kick off with a club expo on Sunday, Nov. 7, from noon to 3 p.m.

Throughout the week, there will be many events that explore the “how” and “why” of Sanibel’s status as a paradigm for natural preservation and the arts, including exhibits at the Historical Museum schoolhouse by the Sanibel-Captiva Art League, tours of native plants by the Sanibel Beautification Committee, free family programs at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge and CROW, a botanical garden tour at Sanibel Moorings and a wide variety of presentations detailing the island’s journey to incorporation.

“SCCF played an integral part in the formation of the City, and Kristie Anders’ talks on the history of the conservation on Sanibel and the formation of the City of Sanibel will be key events during the week,” Werner said. “Rusty Farst’s documentary, featuring recorded interviews with 11 former mayors of Sanibel, sets the tone for history of how the mayors were able to formulate the Sanibel Land Management plan in 1976 and how they helped to protect it from outside forces over their terms.”

Werner will also give a presentation about the span between the Jamestown, N.Y. meeting in 1957 — from which he has an original copy of the meeting’s minutes — to the vote to incorporate in 1974.

“To add a little flavor to the week’s events and to wrap things up nicely, there will be a luncheon at Casa Ybel on Friday, Nov. 12. It will be an old fashioned 1930s menu — salmon, potatoes, vegetables and either apple or peach cobbler — and the whole thing only costs $14.95,” Werner said.

The original minutes from the 1957 meeting that proposed massive development of Sanibel Island.

But that’s not all — at the luncheon, winners will be drawn for a raffle featuring many unique prizes, including a very “Sanibel-esque” piece of jewelry from Congress Jewelers.

The Celebrate Sanibel luncheon begins at 11:45 a.m. Reservations are preferred and can be made by calling 472-9200.

“In the words of Porter Goss, we all have to stay vigilant and take pride in our environment. We don’t have to live in the past. There are many good things about modernity — you can modernize and you can redevelop, but you have to keep the balance and harmony,” Werner said. “We’re all living in a zoo and we are the creatures — the animals are looking at us. And if you don’t think so, go out on your lanai one day and look at all the birds watching you inside your cage!”

A full calendar of Celebrate Sanibel events is available at Bailey’s, Jerry’s, the Chamber of Commerce and at the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village’s website, www.SanibelMuseum.org.