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Lee County moving to add designated parking spaces on two Sanibel Causeway islands

Sanibel Causeway.jpg
Katiuska Carrillo
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Cars parked on the sand on a Sanibel Causeway island on Feb. 3, 2022. Lee County is moving ahead with plans to add an estimated 448 designated parking spots on the causeway to address safety concerns.

The Lee Board of County Commissioners discussed the $8.5 million Sanibel Causeway Islands Improvements Project at their workshop meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 1.

The project will enhance islands A and B using tourist development tax dollars and state funds.

The project is intended to align the Sanibel Causeway with other traditional beaches in the area such as Lynn Hall, Bowditch Beach and Bonita Beach. This effort will include the construction of traditional beach amenities like pavilions, picnic areas, restrooms, native plant landscaping, and designated parking.

“I think this is a great project that's going to give us a chance to continue to use these islands long into the future,” Lee County Commissioner Brian Hamman said.

Phase 1 of the project first started as erosion remediation in 2016. As Lee enters phase 2 of the project, officials are discussing additional water retention areas and public safety concerns.

“We've seen a lot of erosion on these islands over the last few years,” Hamman said. “The fact that so many cars are driving all over the island has led to, unfortunately, more erosion and some accidents where people get stuck and have to get pulled out by tow trucks.”

The main public safety concern is that without designated parking, vehicles move close to the shoreline. That can increase the risk of getting stuck in the sand. Then vehicle owners have to call for tow trucks. This concern was addressed by the proposal to add compacted shell designated parking areas to the causeway.

Designated parking is one of the stipulations required by the grant that the county received to complete the project.

“We just wanted to try and make it more orderly so that folks could enjoy it,” Hamman said. “So that when you get there, you'll know where to park and how to park and what to do, as opposed to right now, it is pretty much a free for all.”

While parking was a major concern for Lee commissioners, some beachgoers don’t believe the current parking situation is an issue.

“We've never had a problem no matter how crowded it was,” local resident Tommy Schoenfeld said. “You say it was a free for all, but with the free for all everybody got along fine. You come here no matter how crowded it was and somebody would move over for your car.”

The conceptual improvements of the project include both parallel and front-in parking. As part of preliminary plans, Island A is estimated to have 234 standard parking spots with 4 RV spaces, and Island B is estimated to have 214 standard parking spaces.

Some community members like Diane Oliver, a local resident who visits the causeway often, don’t take issue with the project as long as the county respects what has been there for years.

“I know that they have cut several trees down and that's disturbing,” Oliver said. “But as long as they're respectful of nature, and you're able to not overcrowd the areas, I don't see any problem with it at all.”

However, Schoenfeld, who visits the causeways once a week, says that’s letting the county off easy.

“The washrooms would be a great amenity,” Schoenfeld said. “But everything else... they totally blew it.”

Schoenfeld said the causeway works fine now as a place to visit and relax.

“They're well on their way of interceding into our beautiful causeway for no good reason,” Schoenfeld said.

One issue that arose at the workshop was whether the designated parking would be paid parking.

“We were asked how we would feel about charging for parking like they do with the other beach parks and all five commissioners said they weren't interested in charging for parking.” Hamman said. “We thought that, right now, with the inflation and the cost rising all over the country, now's not the time to even start charging for parking out here.”

To keep up with the project, Lee County has launched an interactive web tool for the Sanibel Causeway Islands Project to provide easy access to information about the proposed project, including maps, plans, timelines and more in a user-friendly interface. The tool also allows public input through a survey for additional amenities.

The interactive web tool can be accessed at https://leegis.leegov.com/CausewayIslands or by going to the Parks Projects page on the county’s website.

While not everyone who utilizes the causeway is happy with the proposed changes, the project will continue to move forward, and the state funding agreement requires project completion by June 30, 2024.

“It's hard to say goodbye to the old and bring in the new but sometimes you have to do it as long as they're respectful of the nature that Sanibel is,” Diane Oliver said.