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Small change incrementally becomes big change

By Staff | Dec 14, 2012

Barbara Joy Cooley

What keeps Sanibel special is control of change. When Sanibel’s founding mothers and fathers created the renowned Sanibel Plan, they did so knowing that the island would change, because at that time (the mid-1970s) many acres of land could still be developed.

How would it be developed? High rises? Or not? Low density, without high-rises, is what our founders decided upon.

The Sanibel Plan embodies the view that development should be carried out in a way that provides maximum protection to environmentally sensitive areas like mangroves and wetlands while allowing for a greater human imprint on less sensitive areas like upland ridges. That philosophy remains at the heart of the Sanibel Plan today and is implemented by regulations in the Land Development code

In the past decade, Sanibel has been approaching “build-out,” the point where all developable land has been developed. The focus has shifted to redevelopment, and preservation of the environment that we have.

The natural habitat has now been restored on much of the conservation land that had been acquired over the years. Brazilian Pepper is disappearing. Mosquito control ditches have been filled in, and our wetlands now more closely resemble their original, natural state.

In 2005, the voters passed the People’s Choice charter amendments, further ensuring the control of change and protection of the environment. Briefly, these amendments protect Sanibel from a weakening of its basic land-use regulations (building height, residential density, and ground coverage) without prior voter approval.

As Committee of the Islands board member Larry Schopp wrote in a newspaper commentary last April, “The People’s Choice amendments were about the fundamental right of citizens, by means of referendum at the polls, to prevent or undo unwise or unpopular decisions of their elected officials.”

Prior to the People’s Choice amendments, a vote by three members of city council could result in major change for the Sanibel Plan and Land Development code.

What changes now?

So what kind of change can occur now? Big changes seem to be precluded by the fact that the island has almost reached “build-out,” by the acquisition of almost all land that can be acquired for conservation, and by the People’s Choice amendments.

The kind of change that can now occur is small, but the cumulative effect of many small changes is something we must be mindful of and guard against.

For example, the city council recently had an opportunity to write a policy for the Sanibel Plan that would ensure that the island’s beaches continue to provide vital habitat for wildlife.

At the invitation of the city council, the Committee of the Islands proposed the following, unambiguous policy statement: “Development, redevelopment and commercial activities shall not diminish the usefulness of the beach as habitat for indigenous and migratory wildlife.”

Instead, by a 3-1 vote (Vice Mayor Denham cast the lone “no” vote) the council adopted a policy that would only bar activities that “measurably degrade” the use of the beach as wildlife habitat. The very serious problem with using a qualifier like “measurable” is that the debate over any encroachment or activity that is proposed will always focus on whether the qualifier has been met, with little or no attention paid to cumulative effects.

In other words, many very small changes that individually seem insignificant could accumulate over time, diminishing the quality of the beach environment. Think about it – a hot dog stand here, then a couple of jet skis at a resort there, extra trimming of native vegetation at a condo complex, and then more at another condo complex, and so on and so on, until at last the small changes add up to a big negative cumulative effect.

While I am not suggesting that the city council is about to approve jet skis, hot dog stands or excessive trimming of native vegetation on the beaches, unless activities such as those are in conflict with a policy of the Sanibel Plan, council could approve such uses. All it would take is a vote of three members of this or some future city council.

Creeping, incremental change … it could be a problem.

Or it could be positive, such as with the implementation of the Dark Skies rule on Sanibel. The outdoor lighting which is still not compliant with this rule must be changed during the next two years (prior to January 1, 2015), according to the Sanibel code. For example, lights that shine upward on a sign or facade must be changed to lights that shine downward instead, to reduce light pollution at night. The changing of each light fixture is a small, seemingly insignificant change. But add up all these small changes, and it will be even easier to see the Milky Way at night. Sanibel is one of the few remaining places where that is possible.

The power of incremental change over time is often underestimated. So we must be mindful of those small changes, and keep them positive. That’s how we can keep Sanibel special now and in the future.

We invite input on this and other issues affecting our islands.

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