How wonderful are islands! Islands in space, like this one I have come to, ringed about by miles of water, linked by...no cables, no telephones.... People, too, become like islands in such an atmosphere, self-contained, whole and serene; respecting other people's solitude, not intruding on their shores, standing back in reverence before the miracle of the individual.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh might recoil in horror if she revisited the sandy retreats that inspired her rhapsodic 1955 bestseller, Gift from the Sea. For one thing, after basking for centuries in seclusion in the Gulf of Mexico, a few miles off what is now Fort Myers, Fla., Sanibel and its smaller sister island, Captiva, are linked to the commercial mainland by a busy causeway and all manner of cables and jangling telephones. For another, so many condominiums are being erected on the islands that residents, fearful for the survival of the "Tahitis of the Americas," have been waging an exceedingly un-serene campaign called SOS—Save Our Sanibel.
In 1973 a building boom hit the islands like the severe tropical storm that recently swept away 50 yards of beach and a stand of Australian pines from in front of the cottage where Mrs. Lindbergh wrote Gift from the Sea. In her beachcomber days Gulf-front property went for $45 a front foot. Today it brings as much as $1,250. A decade ago there was not a single condominium on Sanibel; now there are more than 2,500 units going up in a community with a year-round population of only 4,000.
The southernmost of the barrier islands off Florida's Gulf Coast, Sanibel is a 12-mile crescent of 11,000 acres that, unlike the other islands in the chain, faces south. Bearing the brunt of strong currents and mighty storms, its beaches are strewn with innumerable shells; indeed, they sometimes pile up as high as eight feet, making Sanibel the most widely known hunting ground for conchologists in the Western Hemisphere.
February 3, 1975
It is also the only Florida island with a freshwater river ("Miami Beach used to have one," says a local conservationist, "but they filled it in with concrete"). That nourishing feature, plus 3,500 acres of estuaries, tidal flats and mangrove swamps encompassed by the J.N. (Ding) Darling National Wildlife Refuge makes Sanibel a retreat where the birds outnumber the residents by more than 100 to 1.
The waters off Sanibel and Captiva are rich in snook and tarpon. It is a place where man still lives so close to nature that on a recent morning, while preparing to whip up his famous redfish omelets, the chef at the Lighthouse Restaurant was only slightly startled to find an alligator under the refrigerator; a place where golfers are menaced by falling coconuts and distracted by breaching porpoises; where grown men stop their cars to help a striped mud turtle cross the road.
Juan Ponce de León first encountered "the islands that jutted out into the sea" in 1513, while on a search for new outposts and more slaves. The customary account has it that, in honor of his departed queen and benefactor, he christened the larger of the two islands Santa Isabella, later corrupted to Sanibel. Like many another modern-day interloper, De León found the natives restless when he returned in 1521 and attempted to establish a 16th-century version of a condominium: attacked by Calusa Indians, he escaped, but with an arrow wound in his thigh that eventually caused his death. And in the 1800s another adventurer, the legendary pirate Gasparilla, is supposed to have kept the loveliest of his female captives on Sanibel's sister island, where "their wails rose in the lonely nights of despair." Hence Captiva.
Isolated, and without electricity or paved roads through the first half of the 20th century, the islands were so blissfully remote that copies of the Fort Myers News-Press had to be dropped from a plane. There Teddy Roosevelt came to spear manta rays, Edna St. Vincent Millay to write and Zane Grey to fish. Clarence Rutland, a nurseryman, among many other things, was raised in the Sanibel Lighthouse and recalls fighting a brush fire with a man who introduced himself as Henry Ford. Now 83, Uncle Clarence, as he is known, also remembers Thomas Edison stopping by the lighthouse in a paddle-wheeler to discuss rubber-tree plants. The chats were ludicrous, he says, because "Edison couldn't hear thunder through that long ear trumpet of his."
Still, the occasional visit from such personages as Edison and Teddy Roosevelt could scarcely be termed "tourism." That began in 1963, with the construction of the three-mile Sanibel Causeway, and the building explosion hit 10 years later.
In 1973 the value of building permits issued for Sanibel in one week exceeded that of those issued in all of 1972. Today a new two-bedroom beach house sells for $150,000, and the old line "If God retired, He'd live on Sanibel" now prompts the sneering rejoinder, "Yeah, just so He could sell real estate on the side."
The sudden growth strained the ecological balance of Sanibel and Captiva to the point that the islands themselves became an endangered species. Located in the fastest-growing county in the U.S., Sanibelians were made acutely aware of their plight in 1974 when, despite a stiff $3 toll, a record half million cars poured over the causeway.
Lured by ads promising the "Sound of Silence" at such dreamily named complexes as Sanibel Siesta, Oceans Reach and Sunset South, the influx of condominium buyers created instead a cacophony of growling bulldozers.
Surveyors' stakes adorned with scarlet ribbons cropped up like kidney beans in the densest reaches of the islands. Acres of red mangroves, whose long silt-retaining roots constitute the superstructure of the marshlands, were leveled. And on at least one occasion, digging for "real estate lakes" resulted in the intrusion of ocean brine into the freshwater system.
With beach litter mounting, with no public sewerage, and drinking water so scarce that a moratorium had to be imposed on further hook-ups, the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation declared that the community was "quite literally under attack and fighting for survival."
More explicitly, Foundation Director Dick Workman warned that "If you destroy the natural features of this place, the wildlife will leave or die, and the people won't have much more of a choice."
The struggle to prevent such poverty of choice has been long and bitter, and, more than an exercise in self-determination, it is a chronicle of how one beleaguered community is thrashing out such questions as what to do to ensure orderly growth; to plan and regulate the productive use of its land; and to nourish its tourist economy without destroying the natural endowments on which it is based. In short, how, specifically, are Sanibel and Captiva to cope with the universal problem of man versus his environment?
The answer so far is—tenaciously. Ten years ago construction of the causeway incited one of the most spirited citizens' revolts since Concord Bridge. Though unsuccessful, the three-year Battle of the Bridge established a long and cherished tradition of gritty infighters on the islands, and last November, in a move befitting a celebration of the nation's Bicentennial, hardy citizens of Sanibel, oppressed by what they considered a tyrannical Lee County government across the bay, voted to declare their brave little island a free and independent city.
The drive to thus preserve Sanibel from a fate worse than Miami's began in earnest in September of 1973 when, after two years of painstaking preparation, the Sanibel-Captiva Planning Board, Inc. submitted a comprehensive proposal for land use to the Lee County Commission in an effort to rein in the runaway builders. Zoning on Sanibel, as an unincorporated area, was under the jurisdiction of the county, but most islanders considered the prevailing regulations antiquated, and enforcement of even these all but nonexistent. Worse yet, there were frequent accusations that the five-member county commission was beholden to the developers.
Certainly the county's repudiation of most of the islands' requests for relief did little to alleviate the widespread belief that the commissioners were insensitive, if not downright antagonistic, to the Sanibel planners, many of whom were retired men of influence with considerably more experience in business and government than in land-use planning.
Last fall a move to forestall construction of a trailer park on Sanibel was denied, despite conservationists' claims that it would pollute the waters in an adjacent wildlife refuge. Commissioner George Goldtrap, a TV weatherman who was chairman of the county's governing body, complained, "Those people from Sanibel and Captiva always seem to be asking for some special treatment. They're making a nuisance out of themselves." In a column he was writing for the weekly Island Reporter, Goldtrap added that Vernon MacKenzie, then president of the Sanibel-Captiva Planning Board and a former U.S. assistant surgeon general, "should be reminded that people still have to make a living, and that giving away their land to socialist planners is not very profitable or very American." The Island Reporter ran a stinging editorial reply accusing Goldtrap of demagoguery "reminiscent of [the late] Senator [Joseph] McCarthy."
Perhaps the most telling indication of the standoff between the county and the islands occurred at a subsequent commission meeting when Goldtrap announced that he would like to "rid himself of all planners." To dramatize his stand, he moved to cease all further planning and zoning efforts, but his motion died for lack of a second. Then Commissioner Walter Shirey, representing the district that included the islands, introduced a motion to take legal action against three Sanibel condominiums for blatant violations of existing zoning ordinances. It too was ignored.
Faced with this state of affairs, the planning board became convinced that it could look for little or no help from the county, and Sanibelians had no trouble foreseeing the probable results if construction continued unabated. From the beach in front of the Sanibel Lighthouse they would point to Fort Myers Beach, a community with houses crowded between motels and billboards (SEE MOTHER NATURE'S CREATURES ON PARADE!), as a monument to bad planning. And because of indiscriminate granting of zoning variances by the county, many of the more than 50 new businesses that had opened on Sanibel in the last year were already strewn helter-skelter along Periwinkle Way, the island's main road. With Dairy Queen open for business and a 7-Eleven in the offing, other chains were sure to follow. That is, if the community could not change the zoning ordinances that, among other enormities, permitted housing for up to 90,000 on Sanibel, a prospect that caused one alarmed resident to exclaim, "We'll just plain sink!"
Drastic measures were clearly called for after the Lee County Commission shelved Sanibel's plan for land use and turned down a plea for a moratorium on building until the county worked out its own new master plan. So in late 1973 island leaders decided on the attempt to secede from the county's jurisdiction by making Sanibel an independent city. Twenty thousand dollars was raised, the Sanibel Home Rule Study Group formed, a professional planning consultant hired and public meetings held. And on March 27, 1974, by a vote of 436 to 358, the citizens of Sanibel elected to place a referendum for incorporation on November's ballot.
At stake was the right to elect a five-member city council; to create new zoning ordinances consistent with the special needs of the island; to develop a master plan that would guarantee orderly growth and protect the environment; and to set and enforce density ratios, height restrictions on buildings and setback lines from the beaches.
Desirable as all of this sounds, passage of the referendum was by no means assured. One obvious problem was the additional taxation that would be required to finance the myriad services and responsibilities of an independent Sanibel—additions to the police force, maintenance of city streets, parks and recreational facilities (Captiva, linked to Sanibel by a block-long bridge, was realistically excluded from the referendum because of its heavy dependence on county funds for beach erosion control). Estimates indicated that at first only an additional 3.1-mill tax levy, which works out to $124 on a $40,000 assessment, would be needed to launch the new city of Sanibel, but the financial burden was just one of several hotly debated issues that promptly divided Sanibel residents into distinct but polarized camps.
The "IGMs" were the I-Got-Mine property owners concerned with protecting their own interests while pretending to work for the good of all. There were the builders, out to pillage and ravage the land, and the conservationists, who preferred water moccasins to people. The Gulf Drive mafia were the wealthy islanders who bought influence. And the cliff dwellers, the condo owners, whose sole interest was resale values. Mistrust was rampant.
At the American Legion's semi-annual mullet-and-hush-puppy fry, plumber Marvin Post complained that "this incorporation thing is going to squeeze the little guy right out of business. The haves want to be serviced by the have-nots, but they forget that we've got to have a place to live. They want to turn Sanibel into some kind of millionaires' paradise. It's isolationism."
Canoeing down the Sanibel River, Dick Workman, the environmentalist, pointed out "Exhibit A," a half-mile stretch of shoreline stripped of its heavy foliage for a new housing development. "This kind of barbarism," he said, "is why we must incorporate to stop the irresponsible builders."
Robert Houser, one of the riverfront developers, pointed an accusing finger right back. "These so-called conservationists want to keep the islands all to themselves. If they had their way they'd blow up the causeway. At the first public meeting on incorporation, they put on one of the most unruly, vulgar exhibitions I've ever seen, booing and hissing whenever anyone else tried to talk. Disgusting!"
While tending bar at his restaurant, the Coconut Grove, builder John Kontinos explained why the state had ordered him to restore 40 acres of mangroves destroyed in the construction of a sprawling new development called The Dunes. "When we set aside those 40 acres for runoff," he said, "the culvert didn't operate and we flooded the mangroves and killed them. The question is," he added darkly, "who deliberately dammed up that culvert? And who put sand in the gas tanks of our equipment? I don't want to see this island raped. I've lived here for 18 years, which is about 13 years longer than [Planning Board President] MacKenzie. He himself, in fact, lives on land filled in by one of those big bad developers."
One of the most celebrated combatants was 80-year-old Willis Combs. Two years ago, when the county planned to run a road through a preserve of 100 rare trees and plants that he had been nurturing for more than two decades, Combs enlisted the aid of everyone from the Girl Scouts to the garden club in a campaign called "Let It Be." According to one account, when all else failed he lay down in front of the bulldozers while his wife Opal stood at the ready with her trusty bow and arrow, the result being that no road was built.
Combs, who every morning dutifully hoists the Stars and Stripes in front of his beachfront house, was but one of an army of volunteers who actively fought the developers. At one point, shaking his cane in anger, he rallied the troops by complaining that "those fast-buck artists are cheating so much on the height restrictions!" Since the restrictions at the time allowed a building to rise only 35 feet above ground level, the height to be measured from the center of the nearest approved road, Combs had a point when he observed that "it's like measuring a man from his neck to his kneecaps. I'm going to put on a pair of stilts and go down to the county courthouse and tell them Tin a condominium."
As for Esperanza Woodring, one of Sanibel's original homesteaders and at 73 still one of its best fishing guides, she had no use for any of the factions. Standing barefoot on her backyard dock she said, "I don't even think about all those condominiums put up with spit. I've been through many a hurricane, and, believe me, one good blow will settle everything." Her feelings about incorporation were summed up with the observation that "all those people with money are cahootin' together, tryin' to rob the open air from other folks. Both sides are equally bad and I wouldn't honor either with my vote."
On Nov. 5, 1974 the island's registered voters showed they disagreed with Mrs. Woodring. An impressive 85% of them turned out to cast their ballots, and the incorporation referendum was passed by a vote of 689 to 394.
This was, of course, more a beginning than an end. A month of spirited campaigning followed passage of the bill, and the islanders elected five city councilmen who, in turn, named Porter Goss, top vote-getter in the general election and a 36-year-old former political analyst for the CIA, the first mayor of Sanibel. Swearing-in ceremonies took place at the community center, and a local hibiscus grower named a new hybrid the Sanibel Councilman in honor of the occasion, after which the island's new governing body passed 10 resolutions and eight ordinances at its first session shortly before the new year.
Most notable among them was a decree to the effect that no new building permits or zoning changes were to be issued for at least 90 days, or until a comprehensive land-use plan was adopted. Only those builders who had received permits before the incorporation vote and had actually broken ground within 60 days thereafter were allowed to continue construction. Two large motel chains had managed to marshal their forces to gain a beachhead on Sanibel, and anxious developers rushing to beat the deadline got approval for 13 condominiums, 31 single-family dwellings, 17 duplexes and 11 other projects before the city council took over. But further extensions of the dreaded Wall, a three-mile stretch of condominiums built chockablock by the sea, could be stopped. No longer would the condos be allowed to lay their foundation walls so close to the surf that they not only caused serious erosion but threatened to bring entire buildings toppling down when the next hurricane hit. And one of the island's largest developers, Mariner Properties, Inc., has, by and large, lived up to its credo of "low density, high quality living." Run by a pair of amiable 33-year-old whizzes named Bob Taylor and Allen Ten Broek, the company is patterned after the widely acclaimed Sea Pines Plantation on Hilton Head Island, S.C.
The vote for independence was taken before Sanibel became so metropolitan that it was above stirring itself into a controversy over a new acquisition—its first traffic light. Nor has there been much rejoicing of late to equal the kind that greeted the announcement that Captiva's only pair of bald eagles gave birth for the first time in five years: what conservationist George Campbell calls "devout pests" may have come into their own.
Campbell, an international officer of the Fund for Animals, Inc. and director of the Zoological Action Program (ZAP), is one of the leaders of the movement to protect the island's wildlife. Tending to his favorite creatures, he allows that "I have a real feel for what is going on with reptiles." To prove it, Campbell will step onto the lakeside dock behind his home and let loose with a guttural "Yaaaunk! Yaaaunk!" and, sure enough, his "juvenile distress call" almost always brings an adult alligator swimming to the rescue.
In the former "Mosquito Capital of the World," where the insects were once "so thick that you could swing a quart pail and catch a gallon of 'em," Campbell has earned the disdain even of his wife in his efforts to have certain insecticides banned. "It doesn't matter," he says. "I'll just keep writing enough letters and making enough stink until something happens. I've been making trouble all my life. And I'll tell you. It works."
So does Care & Rehabilitation of Wildlife, Inc. (CROW), a kind of wildlife paramedical service operated by Shirley Walter and Jessie Dugger. Traveling as far as Miami to rescue their "patients"—blind pelicans, one-legged mallards, grounded barn owls, an osprey with pneumonia—they customarily administer to more than 100 birds, plus outpatients who return for brunch, in their "hospital," an enclosed pond in the backyard of their Sanibel home.
"Somebody always takes care of people, one way or the other," says Shirley Walter, "but no one ever takes care of the animals. So we feel we owe them something."
With such devotion, the future of Sanibel and Captiva seems secure. Still, as an independent Sanibel ministers to its own special growing pains in the second half of the decade, it must also face up to far-ranging questions. What right has any one group, however lofty its professed ideals, to reserve its beaches and other natural endowments for the enjoyment of the exclusive few? And on the other hand, at what point does accommodating the many work to the detriment of all? Recently, Florida Governor Reubin Askew, noting that three out of every four Floridians live on the shoreline, said that it would soon be necessary "to try to divert a lot of the development away from the water. It's like killing the goose that laid the golden egg when you start developing the very resource people want when they come. Everyone simply cannot live on the water."
At the same time, sounding a warning for Sanibel and any other community that might try to cut itself off from the outside world, Askew said, "You are going to find more and more protective regulations in order to insure public access to the water."
In addition, the state's Environmental Land Management Study Committee reports that "attitudes are changing rapidly today in the midst of growth, environmental and energy problems. There is a growing body of opinion that land is not just private property, but is also a natural and a national resource."
Which is what the majority of the residents of Sanibel think. As Mayor Goss observes, "Sanibel is a perfectly extraordinary demonstration of democracy in action. The people were dissatisfied. They made it known what they wanted in a meaningful way, and now, at long last, we've got control of our own destiny.... It is the will of the people that we preserve the unique natural assets of the island, and we plan to see that their mandate is carried out."