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City council decides on parking, more

By Staff | May 4, 2020

At a special meeting last week, the Sanibel City Council voted to keep beach parking closed, to allow restaurants and retail to open up with certain conditions, and to extend existing rental restrictions.

On April 29, the council voted unanimously 5-0 to uphold the closure of the city’s paid parking lots through May 15. While the beaches have remained open, a residential sticker is required to park.

The council also voted 3-2 to follow phase I of the “Safe. Smart. Step-by-Step. Plan for Florida’s Recovery” announced by Gov. Ron DeSantis. In particular, the governor’s executive order allows for the reopening of restaurants and retail businesses based upon a set of principles and guidelines.

In addition, the council voted 3-2 to extend the city’s rental restrictions that are currently in place through May 15. As part of the vote, it amended the existing language to allow guests already on the island to remain and rent a different type of accommodation, like moving from a house to a hotel.

During the meeting, City Attorney John Agnew spent about two hours reading into the record comments submitted by the public. Most opinions shared were split between maintaining the status quo and reopening Sanibel, while others called for a “soft reopening” and reopening of businesses.

The council also recessed to listen to DeSantis’ press conference on his plan for reopening.

In discussing whether to open the city-owned beach lots, city staff reported that more than 120 motorists had to be redirected from the Sanibel Lighthouse parking area to Bowman’s Beach that day, the first day of Lee County lifting restrictions on the public to use county beaches and accesses.

Police Chief Bill Dalton reported that Bowman’s had 109 at its highest point. He shared that he felt visitors were practicing social distancing, adding that “policing” did not appear to be necessary. Due to recent furloughs, he noted that additional staff would be needed if the council reopened the city lots.

Councilmember Jason Maughan voiced support for keeping the lots closed to non-residents for an additional two weeks, citing the ability to contain any potential virus to two beaches versus all.

Vice Mayor Mick Denham agreed, adding that most seasonal residents are heading home soon.

“So there’s going to be less people here anyway,” he said.

After more discussion, others on the council agreed, citing the demographics of islanders.

“I think by not opening the beach parking lots, we continue to hold down that transient visitor population,” Councilmember Richard Johnson said.

A motion to maintain the status quo for city beach lots passed.

Also at the meeting, the council tackled the subject of the governor’s newly unveiled “Safe. Smart. Step-by-Step.” phased plan for reopening the state and its possible application on Sanibel. In particular, the topic of allowing the island restaurants and retail to reopen under certain conditions was debated.

“Are we trying to dissect it, or can we live with phase I?” Mayor Kevin Ruane asked.

Maughan took issue with no protective mask requirements being part of the plan.

“I think we still need to hold the line,” he said.

Denham agreed, explaining that they should wait another two weeks.

Councilmember Holly Smith voiced support for the plan.

“We need to have a baby step for our businesses, we need to have a baby step for our restaurants,” she said. “I think we have the ability to go slowly. I think we have the opportunity to take a baby step.”

Ruane agreed, calling it a “measured first step.”

“There is an apparent risk in food services and hospitality,” he said of the possible exposure to and spreading of the virus. “But we’re giving them the option, we’re not taking it away from them.”

A motion was made to agree with and follow the governor’s executive order related to phase I. Ruane, Smith and Johnson voted in support of the motion, and Maughan and Denham voted in opposition.

Per the city’s guidelines, restaurants and food establishments can allow on-premise consumption of food and beverage, so long as they adopt appropriate social distancing measures and limit their indoor occupancy to no more than 25 percent of their building occupancy. Outdoor seating is permissible with appropriate social distancing. Appropriate social distancing requires maintaining a minimum of 6 feet between parties, only seating parties of 10 or fewer people and keeping bar counters closed to seating.

The city is also temporarily permitting restaurants and food establishments to utilize up to 1,800 square feet for outdoor dining, with proper social distancing. For the full criteria, visit www.mysanibel.com.

Also during the meeting, the council discussed the subject of resort housing. At the time, the city had restrictions in place through April 30 preventing all accommodations from taking new reservations.

Smith suggested extending the current ban for another month through May.

“I think we can walk this back if we need to,” she said.

Denham explained that he was thinking the council could allow for new bookings but focus on controlling occupancy levels, such as at 15 percent. Johnson voiced concern for how the council was treating one faction of the community versus another – allowing eateries to open but not rentals.

“I’m kind of in the same camp,” Ruane said of Johnson’s stance.

Ruane added that he is struggling with extending the restrictions for an entire month.

After more discussion, the motion to extend the ban was changed from one month to two weeks.

“It looks like there’s enough council votes to carry 15 days,” Maughan said.

Upon the city attorney’s recommendation, the council also amended the motion to include updated language that clarified that existing Sanibel visitors could extend their stay by switching to any rental.

“I would like to close that,” Smith said. “It was an unintended consequence.”

The amended motion passed in a 3-2 vote. Maughan, Smith and Denham cast their votes in favor of extending the city’s existing rental restrictions; Ruane and Johnson cast votes in opposition to it.