Sanibel, FL

The Sanibel Plan for the City of Sanibel, Florida shows how a small community can create and implement a plan that incorporates extensive conservation measures to enhance resiliency to natural hazards and better serve the needs of residents and businesses. Much like southern Louisiana, Sanibel Island faces threats from tropical storms, floods and sea level rise. Throughout the 20th Century, many coastal Florida communities did not include environmental considerations into their comprehensive plans and developments. The result has been the degradation of vital ecosystems, leading to coastal erosion, polluted waters, habitat loss and extensive tropical storm damage. The City of Sanibel took a different route to development, recognizing that when people build their cities in ways that sustain the natural environment, both civilization and nature can thrive.

Sanibel. Photo by Christina Rutz via  Flickr .

Sanibel. Photo by Christina Rutz via Flickr.

Project Overview

Sanibel Island, located in the Gulf of Mexico close to the cities of Cape Coral and Fort Myers, Florida, is home to approximately 6,000 residents and hosts tens of thousands of overnight tourists each year. Sanibel is a barrier island with beaches, dunes, wetlands, mangroves and natural ridges. Tourism, particularly ecotourism, is the city’s largest industry.

For hundreds of years, Sanibel was inhabited by a small number of people and visited by few tourists, but in 1963 a bridge was constructed that connected the island to the mainland. Immediately after its opening, residents found themselves dealing with unprecedented growth. At the time, the island community was under the jurisdiction of Lee County and subjected to land use and zoning ordinances developed by the county government with little local input. Ignoring the sensitive natural environment, the county commissioners zoned the island in such a way to allow a population of 90,000 people within its 17.21 square miles of land. Wetlands would be turned into golf courses and the dunes would be replaced by high-rise condominiums. Almost everything that made the island beautiful would be lost forever. Fortunately, this story took a different turn. In 1974, residents of the Island voted to become an incorporated city. Two years later, the city adopted an innovative comprehensive plan, entitled The Sanibel Plan, which utilized an extensive environmental inventory of the island as a basis for all land use planning decisions.

While government officials and consultants were drafting a comprehensive plan for the newly incorporated city, the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation, a local non-profit comprised of concerned residents and scientists, was compiling an extensive natural system study of the island, titled The Sanibel Report. The organization was concerned about the potential negative impacts of development on the fragile environment of Sanibel Island. They took a proactive stance by gathering information, forming recommendations, and engaging the city government and master plan consultant team. The four main components of The Sanibel Report are:

  1. Analysis of the island’s ecosystems
  2. Identification of the principal ecological zones
  3. Diagnosis of the conditions of these zones
  4. Suggestions for management requirements to conserve the island’s natural systems and resources (Clark 1976).

For each ecological zone, the report identified the local climate, geology, subsurface and surface hydrology, soils, vegetation, wildlife, functions, and elements essential to these functions. Most of the recommendations in the report were included in the adopted 1976 Sanibel Plan. The ecological zones, in particular, became “the basis for the permitted uses, density limits, and performance standards” in the city’s zoning code and development ordinances (Clark 1976).

The result of these efforts by the residents of Sanibel Island, local scientists, and consultants has been the creation of a visionary comprehensive plan that protects the remaining natural areas, sets in place policies and practices to restore damaged ecosystems, and supports the restoration of the island’s hydrology. The Sanibel Plan also makes provisions for all other aspects of community planning, including but not limited to hurricane safety, affordable housing, multi-modal transportation, historic preservation, and city services, such as sewage and solid waste. Many of these recommendations are very innovative and forward-thinking.

The Sanibel Plan is a marriage of a community master plan and a natural resource management plan, resulting in the development of a city that provides for its current residents while protecting the environment for the enjoyment of present and future generations. In 2007, the American Planning Association awarded the city the prestigious National Planning Landmark Award for the 1976 Sanibel Plan, recognizing it as a historically significant and innovative document that has greatly influenced the contemporary sustainable city planning movement.


Plan Highlights


  • Pressure from development following the opening of the Sanibel Causeway and lack of strong regulations from the country government put the natural environment of Sanibel Island at risk. Local government, residents, and advocates developed a plan to protect the ecologically sensitive barrier island. Regulations to protect natural communities also helped improve safety and quality-of-life for residents through decreased erosion, improved water quality, natural storm surge defenses, and recreational opportunities.
  • The plan uses an analysis of the city’s ecosystems, hydrology, and geology to influence land use and development decisions (Sanibel Plan 1976).
  • Development in all districts is subject to environmental performance standards tailored to the ecological zone of the parcel.
  • Lands unsuitable for building are reserved for conservation through the use of easements and zoning.
  • Areas of dense vegetation, such as mangroves and marshes, are maintained and protected to reduce wave heights and velocities and decrease storm damage.


  • Unchecked development and lack of land use planning posed a serious threat to the residents and visitors of Sanibel Island as development decisions were made without consideration for resiliency and safety. To amend this situation, the city’s land use and building ordinances are designed to minimize property loss from hurricanes, but still allow Sanibel Island to thrive as a beach resort community.
  • Development is directed away from areas subjected to high storm surges and scour (erosion).
  • All non-conforming structures damaged more than 50% in a storm must be rebuilt in conformance with the flood and stormproofing requirements of the City’s current Land Development Code.
  • All buildings, even those not financed through a mortgage, must be elevated or floodproofed to FEMA’s 100-year storm projected wave heights.
  • Sanibel engages in regional coordination for planning hurricane evacuations. Because there are no safe places to “ride out the storm” on Sanibel Island, the city officials plan evacuation routes and work with regional inland partners to provide shelter for evacuees.


  • The transportation infrastructure of Sanibel Island, with only one road connecting to the mainland, can become very congested during peak tourism seasons and hurricane evacuations. With limited space, roadway expansion is not a viable option for the city. Therefore, the plan mandates the managing and limiting of population growth not only to protect the natural environment, but also to ensure the hurricane evacuation system is not overloaded, and people are able to leave the island in a safe and timely fashion.
  • Any future growth must follow improvements in the evacuation system.
  • Extensive networks of shared-use (bicycle and pedestrian) paths, sidewalks, and boardwalks have been built and expansion is planned to reduce the dependence on automobiles. Provisions for a transit system and mainland-to-island shuttles have been planned (Sanibel Plan 2007), but not yet implemented.
  • City Hall has been elevated and storm-proofed to act as a center of command and response in the event of hurricanes.
  • The city’s water infrastructure has been built with the goals of providing a high level of service to the community, sustaining the natural hydrology of the island, and preventing saltwater intrusion in to the aquifer and freshwater wetlands.



Before incorporation and the adoption of the 1976 Sanibel Plan, county government did not consider the specific environmental context of the island, nor the needs and concerns of Sanibel’s residents when making development decisions. This lack of local influence in planning and policy making led to numerous problems in the 1960’s and 70’s, during which Sanibel Island faced unprecedented growth.

Becoming an incorporated municipality was an essential process for Sanibel Island; without this designation, it was impossible for residents to assert control over the response to and regulation of localized issues.

Citizens were engaged in the development of The Sanibel Report (environmental plan) and played a vital role in pushing the environmental cause forward. Largely due to the public support of the conservation focus of the Sanibel Report, its findings were incorporated in the city’s official comprehensive plan.

The future roles of Sanibel Island as an environmental sanctuary, a livable community, and an attraction are presented and addressed as deeply intertwined in the 1976Sanibel Plan and its subsequent updates. The balancing of these roles has allowed for the development of one of the most desirable vacation destinations in south Florida.


Lessons Learned

This case represents a successful collaboration of citizens, planners, and scientists who worked together to develop and implement a plan that benefits people, businesses, and the environment. Limited time, resources, and funding often makes weighing all the environmental, social, political, and economic concerns of a community an extremely difficult undertaking during a master planning process. Utilizing the assistance of local non-profits, educational and research intuitions, and private citizen advocates, as the City of Sanibel has done, can reduce the burden on local government and paid consultants, and lead to the creation of a plan that is comprehensive, creative, and effective.

Three factors have contributed to the successful drafting and implementation of Sanibel’s comprehensive plan. First, The Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation took an active role in assisting the local government by providing an environmental inventory and recommendations for conservation and development. The Sanibel Report became critical in identifying areas suitable and unsuitable for development. Second, the language used in writing the plan’s provisions was identical to what would be found in legal provisions, which made for easy adoption into ordinances and codes. Lastly, adequate city staff were employed to implement and enforce the plan. Together, these factors have led to high returns on the city’s investment. The protection of the natural environment has attracted new residents and visitors, resulting in increased investment and a higher tax base, without exceeding the carrying capacity of the island. Additionally, informed development has limited loss of life and property on Sanibel Island, creating a prosperous and resilient community.



City of Sanibel, Planning Commission. (2007). The Sanibel plan: The comprehensive land use plan for the city of Sanibel, Florida. Retrieved from website:

Clark, J. (1976). The Sanibel report: Formulation of a comprehensive plan based on natural systems. Washington, D.C.: The Conservation Foundation. Retrieved from