“So, the million-dollar question is when are you going to open the causeway, when are you going to take down the gate, when are you going to take down the checkpoint? And I can honestly say to you now that I don’t know the date,” said city of Sanibel manager Dana Souza at the Nov. 30 meeting of the Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce at Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort.
Souza was one of five panelists from the city and Lee County who addressed post-hurricane issues at the first chamber business luncheon since Hurricane Ian hit on Sept. 28. Other speakers included Sanibel Director of Building/Chief Building Official Craig Mole’, Director of the Lee County Economic Development Office John Talmage, Sanibel councilmember Dr. Scott Crater, and Lee County Property Appraiser Matt Caldwell.
“It’s not a willy-nilly decision we’re going to make, we’re just not ready yet,” Souza continued, naming benchmarks that must be met before that can happen, including debris removal, completion of installing concrete electric poles, and making sure islanders and island property is safe.
“We need to have a place for [visitors] to go other than driving around and looking at rubble,” added the city’s new chief building official Mole’. “We need beach parks areas open, we need to have parking open for them.”
Building back and permitting was also a hot topic first broached by Mole’. “We are going to have real difficulties meeting the 50 percent rule, and I’ll answer questions about that later,” he said. “But we also must depend on our Sanibel Plan when we rebuild.”
Caldwell, county property tax appraiser, also addressed build-back, explaining how residents have been issued a tax-rate appraisal letter on leepa.org. Panelists advised that those receiving tax-rate appraisals lower than $400,000 may want to have a private appraisal to accommodate the 50 percent ceiling on build-back improvements that won’t require flood elevation compliance. “County tax appraisals are very tax-payer friendly and will not overshoot the market,” said Caldwell. “And it’s based on assessments from Jan. 1…. A [higher] private appraisal will not affect your tax rate.”
Panelists and chamber representatives highlighted the positive developments as hurricane recovery moves forward.
Caldwell told attendees that the property tax refund process for 2022 likely will be retroactive in 2023 for residential properties. He urged residents to go the Hurricane Ian page on leepa.org to upload photos and describe home damage.
Crater pointed to the tree lighting at ‘Tween Waters Beach Resort as a sign of things getting back to normal. Also, the recreation center has reopened and 26 people attended a yoga class there the previous week.
Souza reported that Sanibel only rakes its beaches under catastrophic conditions, and will be doing so to remove hazards and hurricane debris from the sand to improve beach safety for future users. His announcement that the lighthouse is ready to be lit brought an enthusiastic round of applause. He shared that the city will be planning an event to celebrate that moment.
“We’re going to be recreating our barrier island sanctuary,” Souza said. “That’s not going to change. The Sanibel Plan will not be in the back of our minds but in the front of our minds always.”
“That the islands are coming back to life has become more of a reality than it has been for the last 60 days,” said John Lai, chamber president and chief executive officer. “We’re going to celebrate the heck out every reopening. It’s nothing short of a miracle that we have reopenings again, so we have to celebrate that.”
“The full room here today demonstrates our chamber is more important than ever,” said Chamber Board Chair Calli Johnson as she opened the meeting, which was sponsored by Simple Social of Fort Myers and was open to the general public.
ABOUT SANIBEL & CAPTIVA ISLANDS CHAMBER OF COMMERCE
The Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce is dedicated to promoting the prosperity of its members and preserving the quality of life of our community. With more than 460 active Chamber members from both islands and businesses from Lee and Collier counties, the Chamber plays a key role in facilitating communication and cooperation between business, residents, and government to enhance the economic health of the islands. The Francis P. Bailey, Jr., Chamber Visitor Center is located at the entrance to Sanibel Island and welcomes tens of thousands of visitors each year. VISIT FLORIDA named the visitor center one of 13 official Florida Certified Tourism Information Centers in the state. It is open 365 days a year and provides comprehensive information about things to do, places to visit, and where to stay, shop, and dine. The chamber website sanibel-captiva.org receives more than 1.3 million website visits per year.