Throughout the 20th century, many coastal Florida communities did not include environmental considerations into their comprehensive plans and developments. Alternatively, the City of Sanibel adopted a comprehensive plan in 1976 to protect beneficial functions of interior wetlands and coastal ecosystems and to adopt development and density standards that reflect the capacity of the native landscapes.
Unhappy with the high-density zoning handed down by the county government, the residents of Sanibel Island voted to become an incorporated city in 1974. This gave them the political power to make land use decisions that protected the natural resources of the island. The city council then selected Ian McHarg, author of Design with Nature, as their planning consultant to draft the plan and recommend zoning codes and maps. The planner was also responsible for receiving public input through interviews and workshops. The non-profit Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF) organized scientists to write the Sanibel Report, which provided detailed descriptions of natural systems of Sanibel and to suggest means for conservation. The findings of the Sanibel Report were incorporated into the city’s official comprehensive plan (the Sanibel Plan).
In addition to environmentally-conscious development ordinances, the plan also called for much of the island’s land to be held in permanent conservation. Through voluntary land acquisitions that took place starting in 1967 and continue today, the majority of interior wetlands are in public ownership and protected for conservation purposes. Acquisitions are funded primarily by the SCCF, which works in conjunction with the city and state government to preserve natural lands.
Implementation & Funding
After incorporation, the city levied taxes to pay for the planning process. Funding for the environmental assessment and much of the land acquisitions is provided by the SCCF. Tourism, especially ecotourism, continues to bring in large amounts of money for the city every year through taxes that help fund continued conservation efforts and regular updates of the comprehensive plan.
Sanibel Island is commonly considered to be a great example of a sustainable community and has been awarded the prestigious National Planning Landmark Award for the 1976 Sanibel Plan. The protection of the natural environment has attracted new residents and millions of 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.