Having internationally popular beaches comes with a cost
When strolling down one of the seven pristine beaches of Sanibel, it is not uncommon that you will run into visitors from Minnesota to Germany.
The Sanibel beaches have earned international acclaim from such publications as U.S. News and Travel, CNN Travel, USA Today, Men’s Journal, Travel Channel and TripAdvisor – just to name a few.
But there is a reason why Sanibel brings in literally thousands and thousands of beach-goers and it’s not just because of the sun, surf and sand.
Sanibel does differentiate itself among other beaches with the overall natural look and feel due to the fact how the beaches are maintained. The unique natural state environment the Sanibel beaches allow people to experience is exactly why people travel from all over the globe to visit.
“Sanibel occupies a very unique situation, we maintain our beaches in a unique way in that we preserve them to represent the natural habitat,” said City of Sanibel Public Works Director Keith Williams. “That is part of reason why Sanibel is a desirable reason to visit.”
But keeping Sanibel in its natural state comes with a cost, a cost many people do not realize is there.
With more people driving across the Causeway to visit the beaches year round, the cost of upkeeping the beaches increases, as well.
For that reason, the Sanibel City Council passed an ordinance last month raising the beach parking fees from $3 an hour to $4 an hour, which brought praise from island residents, but consternation from off island people.
The main reason for the increase in beach parking fees was the $760,000 deficit the City incurred for its beach maintenance cost.
Mayor Kevin Ruane added he heard almost 100 percent support of raising the fees from Sanibel residents, which made the Council’s decision easier.
“We do not run under deficits,” Mayor Ruane said. “The issue before us is for the Sanibel residents to pay off the deficit, or to raise the parking fees. We have 18 miles of beaches to maintain, and we have a deficit maintaining them.”
With the seven different beach parks the City maintains, there are many costs involved, from the most noticeable of restroom and parking lot upkeep, to the less seen of vegetation management and the 24-hour, 365 days a year of beach maintenance.
But having the unique situation of keeping the natural habitat for wildlife, as well as keeping the beaches in their natural state doesn’t come free.
“We do have our beach renourishment projects, which does focus on the erosion hotspots, but we do not create the white, sandy beaches for tourists like other beaches,” said Sanibel’s Director of Natural Resources James Evans. “We allow nature to take its course. We make sure we are protecting our public and private infrastructure, but also preserving the wildlife and wildlife habitat, which is at the top of our hierarchy values.”
Planting native vegetation is also a very important step of maintaining Sanibel’s natural state and that goes for the dunes which line the beaches.
The City of Sanibel plants native plants in the dunes, to promote the natural environment, as well as providing habitat for native wildlife such as gopher tortoises and the many different species of birds.
“There is 67 percent of the entire island is set aside for conservation and wildlife habitat,” Evans said. “The City manages 658 acres of conservation in parks, which include the beach parks. The Sanibel Plan also prevents the commercialization of our beaches, meaning there are no business which line them. The beaches are the attractions, not the vendors.”
The two largest beach parks on Sanibel are Bowman’s Beach and the Lighthouse Beach, which also have the most parking spaces. Bowman’s Beach, which resides at 1700 Bowman’s Beach Road is 50 acres, with plenty of amenities such as outside changing rooms, showers, grills, restrooms, play ground and fitness trails.
The dunes are also planted with native vegetation, as well.
Bowman’s has 214 parking spaces, while the Lighthouse Beach has 195 spaces.
With the demand obviously over shadowing supply of parking spaces, the question is asked why not add more parking?
“The answer is, the number of beach parking spots limits the human impact on our beaches,” Evans said. “It helps regulate the human burden on the beach parks. But it also gives the people who are able to park, the chance to experience why they came here. They get what they are paying for and that’s not like Miami beach, where you’re sitting elbow to elbow on the beaches.
“It’s about having some area to yourself and experience our pristine beach areas and the chance to see wildlife in their natural habitat.”
Williams also points out that when he hears complaints about having to have to pay for the $6 Causeway toll, and then parking, that the City of Sanibel does not control the cost of tolls.
Instead, Sanibel receives 27 percent of the tolls annually, with the rest going to Lee County, which also sets the price of the tolls.
“Much like what the Mayor has compared it to, how much does it cost to bring a family of four out to the movies?” Williams said. “Compare that to coming over to Sanibel and paying the toll and parking. It’s all about the experience and if you have a huge number of people at our beaches, that pristine experience you get and the chance to see all the wildlife now, is no longer there.”
Spreading the cost of beach maintenance is also a reason the City Council used to increase the parking fees.
“People come here for the beaches and the experience,” said Councilman Marty Harrity during the meeting in which the fees were voted to be raised at. “This is something we have to do to maintain the product.”
Williams added there are 6,600 full-time residents on the island and on a busy day in-season, over 10,000 vehicles go through the toll booth. Although the number of actual visitors who are using the beaches cannot be exact, it does show that visitors are using the beaches at a much more higher percentage than residents of the island.
“The beach parks are mostly used by tourists and Lee County residents,” Williams said. “There is a cost to maintaining them.”
All the beach parking revenue does go to maintaining the beaches, which also includes the use of security cameras and the much larger issue of water quality.
Evans has three full-time biologists on staff to help monitor water quality on Sanibel.
“A portion of my salary and of my staff comes from beach parking, because we spend so much time with the beaches,” Evans said.
“We do work with everything from wildlife, water quality to vegetation issues, or anything to do with the natural environment.”
Public Works employs 43 employees total, with a beach park manager and a total of seven beach park trade workers working 365 days a year.
“We have people working the beaches every day, every holiday, from sunup to sun down,” Williams said. “We have two crews on each of the east and west ends of the island. That in itself, is a significant demand.”
The beach trade workers maintain the garbage cans, restrooms, shower areas, maintain the rope barriers and also the big job of controlling the vegetation on the trails, as well as the parking lots.
As visitation continues to increase, so does the demand of upkeeping all the amenities of the beach parks.
Complaints are almost nonexistent that the beaches are dirty or covered with litter, while the biggest complaints are from those who can’t find parking.
“The second biggest complaint is about the watershed runoff and the dark water,” Evans said. “That’s why water quality issues are so important to monitor.”
But once that coveted beach parking spot is found, the advantage of having your own slice of paradise on one of Sanibel’s beaches is well worth it to the droves of worldwide tourists who get to dip their feet in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the warm natural sands of the island.
Now, it’s just going to cost an extra dollar an hour to do so, but with that money going directly into the managing of keeping Sanibel’s beaches the way they were meant to be – in its natural state.