EDITORIAL: The GICIA turns 50 years old

March 13, 2021
By Marcy Shortuse

SUBMITTED BY THE GICIA – As the Gasparilla Island Conservation and Improvement Association celebrates its 50th Anniversary working to preserve island life, it is the perfect time to reflect on its beginning. In the late 60s there were fewer than 500 homes on Gasparilla Island. The zoning regulations, at that time, allowed for high rise buildings and an island density of nearly 7,000 dwelling units. 

Fortunately, even back then when Boca Grande was still a sleepy village, a group of island residents realized that what made Boca Grande special was the fragile nature of the island itself. They understood that Florida would continue to attract new residents and that uncontrolled development would eventually destroy the unique atmosphere of the island.  With that in mind, the first steps towards formation of the GICIA began with Wyman “Mac” Miller at the helm in the late 60s.   

The GICIA was incorporated as the Gasparilla Island Civic League, Inc. on February 13, 1971. The residents that assisted in successfully organizing the Civic League were Ted Smith, Lolo Junkin, Norman Smith, Bayard Sharp, and Mac Miller. The initial concerns faced by the League were zoning and threat of overbuilding, beach erosion, protection of the island’s ecology, loss of wildlife habitat, destruction of mangroves, need for additional law enforcement, and burning at the island dump (yes, there was a dump), just to name a few.  

At the League’s first formal membership meeting on March 29, 1971, Stan Donnelly was elected as President.  Donnelly’s comments to the membership 50 years ago highlighted the importance of the newly formed League: “…this island is going to become more attractive to everyone in the United States, and in our jet age…we have to face the fact that the island is going to grow.  And, rather than have it grow like Topsy, we feel it should grow with some orderliness for the people who live here, for nature’s inhabitants-the fish and birds- and also for the preservation of some of the architecture and traditions of Gasparilla Island.”  It is truly remarkable that those founding members so accurately predicted what was to come and proactively took steps to ensure the impacts of development to Boca Grande would be minimized.  

The next step for the League was to gain tax exempt status.  It was during that process that a suggestion was made to change the League’s name.  Before the end of the 1971, the Gasparilla Island Conservation and Improvement Association (GICIA) was officially incorporated as a nonprofit organization.   

The work of the GICIA began with restoration of the island school that had been unused since 1964.  After gaining cooperation and some funding from Lee County, the GICIA partnered with the Woman’s Club to gain the support of the Boca Grande Community.   In 1975, the Boca Grande Community Center was opened and the GICIA continues to maintain office space in the main building today.   

Without a doubt, the GICIA’s landmark achievement was its role in securing the Gasparilla Island Conservation District Act of 1980.  This state law has provided the single most important tool in maintaining the island’s understated small-town charm.  The Act, enacted by the Florida Legislature, restricts height and density, which has protected Gasparilla Island from the high-rise, high-density development that has negatively impacted many other coastal communities. Today, the Act continues to be the GICIA’s primary area of focus.  Working as its guardian, the GICIA coordinates with both Lee and Charlotte County to ensure proper execution and enforcement of the Act. Further, the GICIA also has a Lobbyist in Tallahassee who remains alert to any activity that might impact the Act or Gasparilla Island. 

The GICIA’s other areas of focus are the five miles of GICIA bike path, and the nearly 300 acres of GICIA owned land conservancy property.  The GICIA Bike Path property, that begins at First Street and travels to the north end, was gifted to the GICIA by the Hugh and Bayard Sharp Families. Consisting of nearly 35 total acres, this lush linear park, enjoyed daily by residents, is maintained by the GICIA.  Besides ongoing maintenance, the GICIA also considers the safety of path users a priority. The GICIA Bike Path Committee updates a safety plan each year that includes maintaining appropriate signage, frequently publicizing the path rules, and working with local deputies to provide daily safety details during busy periods. The GICIA encourages everyone to do their part by reviewing the path rules and being careful and courteous when using the path.

The acquisition of the 30-acre Mercabo property in 2016 brings the total number of parcels owned and maintained by the GICIA to 32. All of these properties are located on and around Gasparilla Island and will be forever protected from development. There is little doubt that if GICIA had not purchased the Mercabo site it would have been developed in a way that would have increased congestion on the island’s roads and beaches and caused a decline in important upland and marine habitat. Instead, thanks to the generosity of the Boca Grande Community, the Mercabo Cove Preserve provides enhanced habitat for native birds, animals and marine life like juvenile gamefish, the endangered smalltooth sawfish, manatees, and dolphin.

As the GICIA celebrates 50 years working with the Boca Grande Community to preserve island life, the Board of Directors and staff are grateful for the continued support of the island’s residents in all GICIA’s efforts.The next time you find yourself enjoying the beautiful and fragile nature of the island, stop and imagine Boca Grande today if there was no GICIA. Marking 50 great years, the GICIA will be giving free, retro GICIA logo, canvas tote bags out to the first 50 members that stop by the office and ask for one. If you are interested in picking up a tote bag or becoming a member of the GICIA, please contact the Office at 964-2667.