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Reviewing COTI’s year of work

By Staff | Mar 29, 2013

Barbara Joy Cooley

Following are the remarks made by Committee of the Islands president Barbara Joy Cooley at the Committee’s recent annual meeting:

I want to take a few moments here to look back over the past year of issues that the Committee of the Islands was involved with or was actively monitoring. Here are some of the highlights.

Periodically, the Sanibel Plan is reviewed as required by state law. This Evaluation and Appraisal Report, or EAR, process this year resulted in a city staff recommendation to remove a beach carrying capacity study requirement from the plan – this in spite of evidence that we may have an increasing problem with buses unloading many day trippers, circumventing the control we have over preventing overcrowding of the beaches and subsequent destruction of beach wildlife habitat, that control being the limited number of parking spaces at our public beaches and accesses.

Our board has examined this potential threat and asked the city to address the problem. The city council agreed, and we are now waiting for the city manager and/or city attorney to present the results of their research about options the city has for controlling buses on our island.

Meanwhile, the City Council approved new wording for the Sanibel Plan that requires that development, redevelopment and commercial activity shall not “measurably” degrade use of the beach habitat by wildlife. The wording is not ideal and is not what we recommended, but the City Council does appear to be sincere in its desire to protect the beach environment. We are only concerned about cumulative effects of incremental encroachments and will continue to monitor the issue closely.

Balance In Planning Commission appointments

Planning commission appointments over the past year underscored our continuing concern that business interests dominate this commission. The City Council appoints and re-appoints planning commissioners. Given the current lack of balance, we have made our objections to the selection process clear to council members and will be looking for greater representation by members of the community as a whole in future appointments.

This is important. Sanibel needs more particularly dedicated citizens who regularly attend city council meetings, who become informed about the city’s governmental process and issues, and who have an interest in running for and serving on the council a year-round volunteer commitment.

For those who are not yet retired or who have other commitments that preclude attending entire council meetings, audio livestreaming of city council meetings is strongly needed. We’ve pushed for this, and it was to be included in the city’s priorities for this year. However, it was dropped from the budget over the summer. We’re hoping it does come to pass, because citizens should not have to wait all day in a long council meeting for a particular issue to come up.

Our organization has greatly increased our community outreach efforts, which Mike Gillespie will tell you about in a few minutes, thereby raising the level of awareness in the community about environmental issues here, and also raising our ability to pack city council chambers with citizens when the need arises.

Vice Mayor Mick Denham’s initiative involving area captains through the region to deal with legislature’s repeated attempts to preempt our local fertilizer ordinances have been so successful that the legislature so far this year hasn’t made any further attempts in this regard. But we must keep our guard up.

Our commentaries in local newspapers, on Facebook, and on our web site have supported and assisted the public education part of Mick’s initiative for example, my commentary called “This isn’t Ohio anymore” to highlight the need to use no fertilizer or, if you must, the right kind of fertilizer in the right way to protect our water quality.

During a period of drought this past year, our area had difficulty getting minimal, necessary releases of fresh water down the Caloosahatchee so that sea grass beds could survive in critical estuary habitat. While the situation has improved slightly over recent years, still the way that the South Florida Water Management District and the Army Corps of Engineers manage water in southwest Florida remains unfair, and damaging, to our estuary. We will continue to urge action at key points to right this continuing wrong.

“No” to buses circulating theisland

Last spring, the “Ding” Darling Transportation Study folks heard Sanibel voices just saying NO to buses, and they removed the recommendation for circulating buses on Sanibel. The project significantly revised the so-called “locally preferred alternative” to a plan that really is a more locally preferred alternative than the one the project had promoted in the preceding year.

Throughout the year, the lawsuit against the city over the longstanding ban on new docks in the environmentally sensitive bay beach zone continued at the snail’s pace that lawsuits so often take. The federal court dismissed that part of the challenge to the City’s rule on the docks that was based on federal law, but an appeal is coming up and the state law portion of the case is not yet decided. So the final outcome is yet to be determined, but the Florida League of Cities is covering Sanibel’s legal expenses to pursue this defense of the Sanibel Plan.

Over the summer, board members Wayne Ponader and Mike Cuscaden monitored the city budget process, which they found to be reasonable, with a slight reduction of millage rate and total expenses. However, they note that there continues to be insufficient opportunity for meaningful public input in the budget process.

And by the way, we are very pleased that Mike Cuscaden joined our board in December to fill a vacancy. Mike has a long record of service to this community in several capacities, and we’re delighted that he’s with our board again.

We successfully initiated efforts to get the city to engage in some public information/public education regarding Sanibel’s Dark Skies rule. The law, passed back in 2000, allowed a 15-year period for older, noncompliant lights to be replaced. That deadline is looming at the end of this next year, and many citizens here now do not even know about this requirement which reduces light pollution of our spectacular nighttime sky. We have a special joint project coming up with the Shell Museum to promote the idea of businesses replacing noncompliant sign lighting before the January 1, 2015, deadline.

We pushed for the city to engage in public education efforts on the Dark Skies rule, similar to the ones made for the long, phased-in implementation of the elimination of Brazilian pepper on the island. Those efforts by the city are supposed to begin soon.

And now as this season is about to wind down, we have a couple new issues to keep watch over.

One is the Lee County Commission’s reduction of impact fees. The long-term effect of reducing this important revenue stream to the county is that it could affect property taxes for all property owners in the county. This is a complicated issue that one longtime member of the Committee of the Islands is examining and following closely.

Here on Sanibel, the City Council is about to escalate its efforts to understand what is needed for redevelopment in Sanibel’s commercial districts, and for a possible, coordinated town center that would be focused on public gathering space and coordinated cultural arts and other community activities not commercial activities. The City Council held its first “workshop” about these topics (recently), and over the coming months, the council promises there will be opportunities for public input in the planning process. We’ll be there to make sure the plans advance in the spirit of the Sanibel Plan, preserving our unique community.

Finally, I want to conclude by thanking all who served with me on the Committee of the Islands board this year. This is a great group of smart and dedicated citizens, and I’m honored to be working with them.

And thank you to all members of the Committee of the Islands. You are the ones who are committed to helping preserve this as a special, unique place. Thanks for all you do.

Keep the faith.