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Guest Commentary: Why architectural design standards for Sanibel?

By Staff | Feb 10, 2016

Almost two years ago the Sanibel City Council passed a little noticed ordinance that could have a major impact on the island, or at least the Resort Housing District, for years to come.

It allows for a substantial increase in room size of some resorts without a reduction in the number of rooms. The result will be larger resorts.

At the time, the Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce, identified a number of older resorts on Sanibel that have rooms of 450 square feet, well below current industry standards, making them unattractive candidates for redevelopment.

Consistent with the City’s policy of encouraging redevelopment of aging, perhaps obsolete resorts, the new law allows for an increase in room size to 600 square feet per room for resorts with one bedroom, provided they remain dedicated to short term occupancy.

At the public hearing for the room size ordinance, COTI pointed out that without a commensurate reduction in total number of rooms, an increase in room size of nearly 40-percent would eventually result in the replacement of older hotels and motels by much larger structures — likely three stories rather than the current two.

That increase in mass would be compounded by the fact that any replacement structure would, under FEMA regulations, have to be elevated on pilings.

A two-story motel currently built at ground level would likely be replaced by a three-story structure on pilings.

The visual impact would be striking and that’s what we told the members of the City Council. We argued that no increase in room size should be undertaken without architectural design standards to minimize the visual impact that increased room size would create.

The Council heard us and committed to enact binding architectural and design standards for redeveloped resorts — standards that would prevent the construction on Sanibel of those boxy motels we see at highway interchanges.

They’re functional and probably inexpensive to build, but out of place in a small-town community like Sanibel, with its own evolving and distinctive character.

Planning Department staff was directed to develop standards that would compliment and reinforce the community’s character and natural environment, present them to the Planning Commission for approval and eventual enactment by the Council.

But, if architectural standards are needed for resorts undergoing redevelopment, why stop there? Why not make them more generally applicable?

That of course makes sense, which is why the scope of work was expanded by City Council to include not just resorts that increase room size but all multifamily, commercial and institutional buildings. Single-family homes are not included.

The resulting draft ordinance contains a set of modest, straightforward standards, including some limitations on unbroken vertical, horizontal and roof line planes, all intended to reduce the monolithic appearance of large structures, to make them look more like “a group of buildings that vary in size and scale” as expressed in Standard No. 1.

The mandatory standards would be supplemented by non-binding examples of Sanibel’s evolving “Island Style” that include descriptions and pictorial representations of Old Florida, Island Eclectic, Island Contemporary and Caribbean Styles — all intended to assist property owners in complying with the mandatory standards.

Older hotels and resorts becoming attractive to investors

Since the enactment of the room size ordinance in 2014, older hotels / resorts have, understandably, become more attractive to investors.

Four well-known beachfront resorts, West Wind Inn, Waterside Inn, Sunset Beach Inn and, most recently, Holiday Inn, have been sold to investors, who, one would assume, intend to redevelop the properties eventually –and therein lies the potential rub.

At the Planning Commission meeting on December 8, the Architectural Standards came up for approval and transmittal to the City Council. During public comment, representatives of the Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce expressed concern that the standards proposed could create a financial hardship to developers and actually inhibit redevelopment.

On the other hand, Planning Department staff maintained that the standards are reasonable and appropriate to carry out their mission. The final decision rests with City Council.

The ordinance had its first reading before City Council on January 5. The second reading (the one at which the public is invited to comment) is scheduled to take place on Feb. 16, but could be postponed until March 1, so that the Mayor, who will be unavailable on the 16th, can participate.

Who should determine the future character of our community?

The question for Sanibel is: Who is to determine the future character of our community as resorts and other structures are redeveloped – – the citizens through their elected representatives or the developers?

To me the answer is clear.

Sanibel should control its own destiny. Otherwise, much of what makes this community so special could be placed at risk.

Will developers have to spend more for their projects if the proposed standards are implemented? I expect so, but Sanibel is a highly desirable community and a top rated vacation destination, made all the more so by its small-town, sanctuary character.

Those wanting to develop or redevelop properties here should understand that and accept the attendant costs as part of doing business on Sanibel Island, as they would in Charleston, Savannah, or St. Augustine or in any other unique and protected community.

COTI invites your input on this and other issues affecting our island. Send an email to coti@coti.org. To read our past commentaries on Island issues, visit our website at www.coti.org. Or visit Committee of the Islands on Facebook.

-Larry Schopp, Board member, Committee of the Islands.