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Why attend council meetings?

By Staff | May 9, 2013

Barbara Joy Cooley

At a recent island event, a woman described people who attend Sanibel City Council meetings as “people who don’t have anything better to do.”

The people she was describing attend those meetings because they care about protecting Sanibel’s very unique character. These are people who want to keep Sanibel safe from overdevelopment and environmental degradation and to keep an eye on how the process of government is working.

There are not many people who attend city council meetings on Sanibel. We think there should be more. Among those who do attend regularly are leaders of the Committee of the Islands (COTI).

That’s only natural. Consider COTI’s mission: to ensure the continuity of good local government, to protect the environment, and to preserve the small-town, sanctuary character of our island. Over the years, COTI’s leaders have not only attended meetings, they also have a record of working toward that mission and, in the process, tackling pressing problems.

Look at the record

What about COTI’s record? During the 10 or so years we have been active in the policy decisions of the organization, here are some of COTI’s more important accomplishments:

In 2003, Sanibel had been incorporated for more than 26 years. Many structures on the island predated incorporation and were not nonconforming, but were showing clear signs of aging. Sanibel had neither a comprehensive post-disaster build-back ordinance nor a comprehensive redevelopment ordinance for nonconforming structures. There was growing concern among citizens about how the city would confront those two issues because they had the potential to profoundly change the character of the island.

As the perceived need for action on build-back and redevelopment became more urgent, a number of residents felt that if hardship was to be avoided, some accommodation needed to be made for nonconforming structures, particularly overpopulated condominiums, some of which contained four stories of dwelling space. However, there was also concern that the island’s acclaimed small-town character could be jeopardized if major changes were made to the city’s restrictions on building height, residential density, and impermeable lot coverage.

Faced with that set of concerns, in the fall of 2003 a team of COTI leaders acted to prevent such changes from being made

without the approval of Sanibel’s voters. They proposed that

the key land use restrictions be incorporated into the City Charter,

where they could only be changed by a referendum put before the people.

Petition drive succeeds

When the city council at that time decided not to put the amendments on the ballot, a larger team of COTI members gathered signatures on petitions to ensure that the amendments were placed on the ballot. In the election that followed, on March 1, 2005, all three amendments were passed.

In the case of the restrictions on building height, the amendments included language to guarantee the right to build back nonconforming four-story condominiums if they were destroyed in a natural disaster. The reasoning was that, if the maximum permissible number of stories was three, an owner could actually lose his/her home if build-back were restricted to three stories in all cases. That would have been unacceptable.

Similarly, in the case of residential density, the amendments’ language permitted redevelopment of existing parcels to their nonconforming density with city council approval, but without the need for voter approval. We were not urging the downsizing of existing structures.

Since their adoption by voters in 2005, the “People’s Choice” Amendments, as they became known, have provided the needed legal underpinning for the city council to enact Sanibel’s first comprehensive post-disaster build-back ordinance and its first comprehensive redevelopment ordinance for the Resort Housing District.

Amendments help build-back

In other words, the charter amendments written by COTI leaders actually enabled the build-back ordinance as well as the resort redevelopment ordinance!

The goal was to treat all property owners, even the owners of nonconforming properties, fairly. COTI participated in the process, enthusiastically supported both ordinances, and praised the city council for their passage.

COTI has always advocated strong language in the Sanibel Plan for protection of our environment and in particular our natural beaches. We have also, on occasion, opposed private development plans that had the potential to undermine the small-town character of our community or would have required weakening key aspects of the Sanibel Plan.

Nothing better to do

As we think back over the past 10 years, we think the hours have been well spent. We believe that attending city meetings is exactly the opposite of “not having anything better to do” that there is in fact nothing better to do than to participate in the process of government, to help protect our environment, and to help preserve the sanctuary character of our barrier island community.

Barbara Joy Cooley is president of The Committee of the Islands and invites your input and ideas on this important subject. Email your comments to coti@coti.org. You can read commentaries on other island issues at our web site at www.coti.org and you can visit the Committee of the Islands on Facebook. Larry Schopp contributed to this report.