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Guest Commentary: COTI works to protect environment every year

April 25, 2014
By BARBARA JOY COOLEY ( , Island Reporter, Captiva Current, Sanibel-Captiva Islander

The Committee of the Islands was founded 39-years-ago as an outcome of the effort to incorporate Sanibel as an independent city to protect it from overdevelopment by the county. Through the years, COTI has continued to work to protect the island from overdevelopment and to defend the Sanibel Plan. This requires never-ending vigilance and working in concert with other organizations on the island.

Last year, the guest speaker at COTI's annual meeting was the environmental attorney Ralf Brookes. He presented a riveting overview of environmental issues at the state level and how we can organize to deal with those issues. And this past year, some of that has actually happened, most notably the gathering of enough signatures on the Florida Water and Land Legacy petition to put that measure on the ballot.

COTI distributed those petitions at its meeting last year, and we continued to work on that effort, along with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, for months afterwards. Sanibel contributed more than its share to this effort, which has been successful. The measure will be on the Nov. 4 ballot as amendment number one, and if approved by the voters, will dedicate 33 percent of the revenue from doc stamps for the next twenty years to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund -- dedicating these funds to the purpose of acquiring, managing and restoring conservation land, and protecting water quality -- without new taxes.

Big victory against water pollution

Our 2014 annual meeting guest speaker was former Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah, who presently leads the Florida Coastal and Ocean Coalition. Ray spoke to us about the ongoing battle against the polluting effects of the sugar industry on our coastal waters, especially Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River.

This year, the battle for clean water won a big victory, which occurred literally as Ray Judah was delivering his presentation at our meeting: A Federal District Judge declared on that day that the sugar industry's backpumping of contaminated water into Lake O was in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

What's more, our community learned the details of this victory via a commentary in the local press by Rae Ann Wessel, director of Natural Resource Policy at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation. Here, too, the timing was very gratifying. Just one week before Rae Ann's commentary, we had presented her with COTI's Citizen of the Year Award for her long record of contributions to the environment.

A vote against circulating buses

A little over one year ago, COTI experienced another success. The final public presentation on the Ding Darling Alternative Transportation Project was made to the Sanibel City Council on March 19, 2013. In particular, this final project proposal included no circulating buses outside of the refuge tours. COTI had worked to oppose circulating buses and spoke out vigorously against them at a number of town meetings on the subject. The people of Sanibel had made it abundantly clear that they were saying "no" to circulating buses throughout the neighborhoods of Sanibel. The people were heard.

We encouraged the city to include public education materials about the implementation of the city's Dark Skies Ordinance in its regular mailings, and with leadership from Mayor Kevin Ruane, the city is now doing so.

No expansion for jet skis

Along with SCCF, we successfully opposed an expansion of jet ski activity in the back bay estuaries, and we supported the campaign to raise funds for Ding Darling's acquisition of the Woodring property. We organized people who are members of both COTI and the Shell Museum to raise funds needed to upgrade the museum's exterior sign lighting to comply with the Dark Skies rule. Almost a year ago, we began working with the city attorney to help develop an ordinance to regulate buses that bring people to the beaches on Sanibel.

We monitored and commented at the city's workshops on redevelopment in the commercial districts, and, more recently, on what is now called the city's civic core proposal. We grew increasingly concerned about the number of zoning variance applications coming before the planning commission, and the number of variances being granted by the planning commission. We objected when the city council planned to break with tradition, and not publicly ask for applications for planning commission appointments when the incumbents were seeking reappointment. Council then reversed the decision and announced that it was accepting those applications for consideration.

As we mentioned at the outset, much of COTI's work is done in concert with other organizations on the island and with local officials. We have met numerous times this past year with the mayor and with the city attorney on issues important to the COTI mission. We have also had a number of productive meetings with representatives of the Chamber of Commerce. The president of BIG ARTS met with our Board to present that organization's preliminary plans for improvements in connection with the civic core. And we work on a regular basis communicating with SCCF to coordinate our efforts.

We are grateful to all who help us in our mission to protect the environment and to preserve the sanctuary character of our barrier island community.

-To read past commentaries on island issues, please visit COTI's web site at We invite your input on this and other issues affecting our islands. You can send us an email at, or visit Committee of the Islands on Facebook.



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