Last week, the Lee County Board of County Commissioners voted 4 to 1 to overturn longstanding height restrictions due to a storm “resilience” initiative and a need for the rebuilding of the South Seas Resort on Captiva.
“We were very, very disappointed with the 4-1 vote to move that forward,” said James Evans, CEO of the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation, which advocates for the islands and manages 2,100 acres of coastal lands. They presented over 13,000 signatures against the changes, 6,000 of which where from across Lee County.
Evans said that it was incredible that density and building heights were increased in what is defined as a Coastal High Hazard area in the “guise of resiliency.”
There were actually two different votes of 4-1 to increase height allowances, one on Sept. 5, 2023 to amend the Land Development Code, and another on Sept. 6, which was a vote to update the Lee County Comprehensive Land Use Plan.
The only no vote on both days was by Commissioner Kevin Ruane, the former mayor of Sanibel and chairman of the county’s Recovery Task Force. Ruane’s district represents coastal Lee County and includes Boca Grande, Sanibel, Pine Island and Captiva.
Ruane was not available for comment this week, as he is on jury duty. However, at the Commissioners’ meeting on Sept. 6, Ruane said that “75 feet on Sanibel isn’t necessarily what anyone is going to embrace.”
The issue of how tall buildings could be on Captiva was unclear. Ruane asked the County Attorney’s staff whether any building could be higher than 45 feet “base flood,” and possibly reach 75 feet, which is a six-story building. The response was that there were “specific criteria that must be met,” and that could not happen “unless you approve it.”
Ruane had actually started the process of discussing resilience earlier this year, only to see it go awry.
“I find it offensive that this is from my motion to where are are today,” said Ruane.
The main issues were height and density. The staff report from Lee County planners explained the change as “landowners seeking to make their properties more resilient are left with limited ability to rebuild their properties while retaining the same amount of usable living space within the structure.”
The main change to the plan was to remove the phrase “one- and two- story building heights” from goal 23 of the county’s comprehensive plan, which guides development across Lee County.
The county report stated that “community character will continue to be enforced through specific height limitations within the Land Development Code.”
There were specific changes to the code. Upper Captiva Island building height limitations, at 35 feet, were changed, deleting a base flood elevation requirement, and removing a need for exterior stairs. On Captiva, the 35-foot height requirement section was changed, specifically exempting South Seas Resort. On Greater Pine Island, the height requirement was amended from 38 feet, to “may not exceed 33 feet.”
One concern raised by current Sanibel Mayor Holly Smith, who is a hotelier, was that South Seas was specifically removed from requirements by name by the county, calling it an “extraordinary exemption.”
Richard Johnson, the current vice mayor of Sanibel, spoke against the change. “You have a responsibility to protect these jewels,” said Johnson.
The updated Land Development Code in the vote specifically references the “Gasparilla Island Conservation District” in Section 34-2175 a.(4), and is unchanged, except for a change in capitalization in the words “Conservation District” in the title.
The Gasparilla Island Conservation District Act of 1980 has very clear restrictions on density and height enacted by the state and approved in referendums in Charlotte and Lee counties.
The original referendum act states:
“No building or other structure shall be erected or altered within the district so that the peak of the roof is more than 38 feet above the average grade of the lot or parcel on which the building or structure is located, or is more than 42 feet above mean sea level.”
“For Boca Grande, honestly I think you are in a pretty good spot,” said SCCF Foundation Director Evans. “I wish we had that same protection on Captiva Island.”
In a subsequent Sept. 12 Zoom meeting of the Captiva Community Panel, community members discussed the meaning of the changes, the next steps, and the fact that four of five Lee County commissioners were willing to vote for a change.
“The community did the best it can,” said Vice Chair David Mintz.
The relevance of the Gasparilla Island protection’s came up in the meeting after a question during the Captiva Community Panel. The perception is that Gasparilla’s “legislative act has a fair set of teeth to it.”