Porter Goss, the mayor of the newly incorporated island city of Sanibel, Fla., is fond of showing visitors to his office a brochure for a condominium resort called the Sundial Beach Hotel and Tennis Club. The brochure features this smashing color photograph: in the foreground, a shell-strewn beach; in the background, massive buildings looming starkly against a turquoise sky. The perspective of the picture makes it evident that the photographer shot it while lying on his stomach in the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, the effect is somewhat marred by an inscription that is faintly discernible on one of the shells. It appears to read "$1.75."
To Goss' mind the use of store-bought shells in a publicity photo smacks of the exploitation and commercialism that on Nov. 5, 1974 led Sanibel to vote to "secede" from Lee County (SI, Feb. 3, 1975) in order, according to the city charter, "to have the rights of self-determination...in the planning for the orderly future development of an island community known far and wide for its unique natural environment."
Moreover, Goss, a 37-year-old former CIA man whose senior thesis at Yale was on ancient Greek lyric poets, is not favorably disposed toward condominiums such as the Sundial. "We don't want any more condominiums on the water," he says. "There is only one place you can't walk on the beach on Sanibel, and that's where the sea wall of a condominium has led to the erosion of the beach."
Lying a few miles off Fort Myers, Sanibel comprises nearly 11,000 acres, more than half of them in the J.N. (Ding) Darling National Wildlife Refuge, and has a population of 8,000. It is justly renowned for its shells, beaches and wildlife. Three hundred species of birds, 70 of marine fish, 24 of reptiles and amphibians and 12 of mammals—including the armadillo and opossum, which were not present before the three-mile causeway to the mainland opened in 1963—have been identified.
The impetus for the home-rule referendum was a building boom in 1973-74 that threatened the ecologically sensitive beach, wetland and mangrove areas as well as the island's amenities. The alternative was scary: the zoning and development criteria of Lee County, which administered Sanibel, provided for a whopping 35,000 residential units (there are now 4,000), with almost no policies or performance standards for protecting the environment.
One of the first acts of Mayor Goss and his four fellow unsalaried city councilmen was to declare a moratorium on all construction until a comprehensive land-use plan was drawn up and approved. Before this could be undertaken, Walter Condon, an off-island developer, initiated a suit—which he eventually lost—challenging the legal existence of the city, whereupon Sanibel's Bank of the Islands said it could not go through with a loan to the city of $250,000 to cover operating expenses.
Since Sanibel was not yet eligible for revenue sharing and was legally prohibited from collecting property taxes until the beginning of the next fiscal year (October 1975), it appeared that the city might founder before it was properly launched. But as soon as its plight became known, offers of assistance poured in. "And not from a bunch of millionaires," Goss says. "One of the first was Gloria Berry, who was working in the post office on the adjoining island of Captiva. She pledged her life savings of $1,000 with no strings attached." When the council advertised for pledges for the purchase of tax anticipation notes, the $250,000 was raised within 72 hours. "We had to turn people down," says Goss. "The city ought to erect a statue of Condon. He was so obviously hostile to what we're trying to do that he became a target the people could rally against. As corny as it sounds, he made us fighting mad."
Sanibel will need to retain this edge, for there have been and will be other suits from disgruntled developers, but if the courts uphold the will of the voters, their experiment in home rule will have nationwide repercussions. It will be the first time an economically and racially diverse community will have regulated its growth largely for environmental reasons.
To this end, last May Sanibel engaged the Philadelphia firm of Wallace, McHarg, Roberts and Todd, a pioneer in environmental studies, to draw up its land-use plan. On Dec. 1 WMRT produced a 239-page $106,000 report. It deals with everything from mosquito control to provisions that no exotic species may be planted that might displace a native species to the evacuation of the island in case of a hurricane.
The heart of the plan is the recommendation limiting growth to 6,000 residential units, because "the natural environments of Sanibel are fragile and dynamic [and] have been degraded by urbanization, and if current trends were to continue, the natural amenities...would be greatly damaged." In order to protect the beaches, wetlands and mangroves, the plan either prohibits development in these zones or severely restricts it.