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Lee to eye major building changes on Captiva; draws ire on possible changes at South Seas resort

 South Seas Island Resort
South Seas Island Resort

South Seas Island Resort, Captiva's northern-most community, is governed by the similar rules and restrictions that exercise authority over the remaining two-thirds of the island.

But that could all change when the Lee County Board of County Commissioners meets Tuesday, June 20, to discuss changes to land codes.

Those changes, if approved, could raise the height limitations for Captiva homes outside of the resort property another story. And homes within the resort could be allowed to be 45 feet above the flood base level with some exceptions rising up to 75 feet over that.

Currently all homes on Captiva are restricted to 28 feet above the base flood level. That’s two-stories-tall.

There are also regulations on density that mandate no more than three units — homes, cottages, condominiums, even hotel rooms — per acre on the environmentally sensitive island.

If the County Commission approves changes, it paves the way for South Seas to build higher and without the current density restrictions.

The proposed changes are being met with great resistance.

From the head of the chamber of Sanibel and Captiva’s commerce to various homeowners’ associations within the gates of South Seas Island Resort are upset with the proposed amendments and are imploring member of the county commission to vote down any changes that take down the guard rails that have helped keep the natural beauty and small-town charm of the barrier islands.

Changes, they predict, will also have a detrimental impact on the environment.

“Our economy on the island is tied deeply to the health of our environment,” John Lai, the president and chief executive officer of the Sanibel and Captiva Island Chamber of Commerce, wrote in a letter to the commissioners.

“As a tourism-based economy and barrier island destination, we rely on the nature of the of our barrier island to draw people from all over the world who want to visit our beaches, hike our trails, bike our paths and experience a slower pace of life than is available in other places in South Florida," Lai wrote. "As business owners and residents of these sanctuary islands we chose to move here and build our businesses because of the natural ethos and similarly minded community who also cares about living and working in the environment that is balanced with its natural surroundings. The planned changes to the Land Development Code would jeopardize our small-town feel, increase traffic and wear on our infrastructure, complicate hurricane evacuation and have a negative impact on our water quality and wildlife.”

The Chamber also urged anyone with cioncerns to reach out to commissioners and to attend the Tuesday meeting (9:30 a.m., during the Board of County Commissioners' regular meeting in board chambers at the Old Lee County Courthouse, 2120 Main St., downtown Fort Myers).

Sanibel and Captiva islands are inextricably linked. One must cross the six-mile Sanibel Causeway to get to the barrier islands on land and then pass through the nearly the entire length of Sanibel to get there.  

Any major changes to Captiva will have an impact on Sanibel, residents say.

Last week, some 400 people attended — online and in-person —  an emergency meeting of the Sanibel City Council to discuss the proposed changes.   

“Is there anyone here who agrees with this? I mean, is that the case right now? Is there any agreement," Roger Grogman, the chairman of the Sanibel Planning Commission, asked during the meeting. "No, there isn't any agreement all. Start over again Take it right back to planning and start over again, from page one. You know, then let's have we clear transparency from page one again, why modify something that we simply absolutely abhor."

Aside from the chamber, another 17 groups on Sanibel and Captiva have asked the county commissioners to cancel the Tuesday, June 20, public hearing on the proposed changes, according to a joint-letter from the 17 groups obtained by WGCU.

The group, through an attorney, vow there will be a legal challenge if Tuesday’s public hearing goes on and the changes are approved by the commissioners.

“I think the message is clear," said Grogman. "I think our message ought to be clear, we absolutely disagree with this.”

The Sanibel City Council voted Wednesday to also send a letter to the commission voicing strong opposition. Even though members of county government were invited to the emergency meeting, none showed up.

South Seas is closed because of Hurricane Ian. Officials have a tentative open date of September: “Ian changed our community. Change can be difficult,” South Seas said in a statement to WGCU.

The resort claimed in the statement that it had not requested amendments to the Land Development Code or Comprehensive Plan.

However, the resort was more forthcoming when pressed that the county is stating that, under one of the proposed amendments, South Seas would be exempt from the no more than three units per acre density restriction.

Resort officials were also told by WGCU that minutes from a June 6 meeting of the board of commissioners about the matter mentions South Seas, and only South Seas, by name, multiple times.

At that June 6 meeting, County Commissioner Kevin Ruane, who represents Sanibel and Captiva islands pulled the item for discussion. He said numerous people from Captiva have been calling and emailing him voicing concerns about the amended land code changes.

Ruane asked the County Attorney Office for clarification and the next steps for South Seas following June 20.

Deputy County Attorney Michael Jacob said if the amended changes are made then South Seas Island Resort would be required to file an application to go through the development process.

Jacob told Ruane South Seas would be required to hold a community meeting where members of the public could attend before starting the rezoning process. Jacob said there would be a staff report and hearing and then the matter would be brought back to the board at a zoning meeting.

In a second statement to WGCU, South Seas said it initially met with the county after the October 2021 purchase and then again after Hurricane Ian.

“We met with Lee County officials when we first purchased the property and expressed confusion and questions about the height requirements for new buildings. Post-storm, we reached out to them about the build-back requirements under the current code,” the resort said.

South Seas Island Resort is now owned by Timbers Company, a Winter Haven company that owns more than a dozen resorts. Other partners in the deal were the Ronto Group, a Naples-based real estate company and Wheelock Street Capital which owns a winery outside of Atlanta. The sale price was $50.38 million, according to Gulfshore Business.

When questioned about plans for future development, the resort said that depends on the height allowance. It said it does plan on building a modern, updated hotel and luxury condos.

“We look forward to bringing a world-class property to South Seas that, while updated and modern, reflects the character of the current property and that is built in a manner that is resilient to future storms,” the resort said in a written response to questions.  

The resort said it had no intention of building as high as 75 feet but would like to add another story. There is also discussion about having raised parking and solar panels. Allowing for 45 feet about the base flood level should suffice, the resort said.

Sanibel Councilman Scott Crater predicts there will be wide-spread opposition to the proposals and not just from Sanibel and Captiva residents.

 Team members with the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association boat to survey hurricane damages near Captiva in mid-October.
Courtesy of Joel Silver
Team members with the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association boat to survey hurricane damages near Captiva in mid-October.

“I think that ordinary Lee voters who live in Lee County who don't live on Sanibel, and Captiva, if they understand this proposal, they will oppose it,” Crater said. “We have lots and lots of people to launch boats when Punta Rassa is open. And many other people who fish in our waters and who come around Redfish Pass don't want to look at a 75-foot-tall building.

“They don't want their paradise ruined. They don't want to be on the south end of North Captiva Island collecting shells and swimming with their friends and look at a big eyesore. People just don't want this," Crater said, adding:

“And again, who benefits are very small group of people who don't even live here, and the people in the county are not going to like it."

Tuesday’s public hearing will be in the board chambers of the Old Lee County Courthouse, 2120 Main St., Fort Myers.  The meeting can be viewed life on LeeTV, through YouTube or on through county’s Facebookpage.  

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