Walkabout: Sanibel Island


PHOTO GALLERY: Sanibel Island 

This barrier island, 30 minutes west of downtown Fort Myers, is known for its beaches and its seashells, but a recent visit revealed the flip side of "the Sanibel stoop."

The shells come and go. Some days are good, and some days are not.

"They are nothing like they used to be," said Emilie Alfino, manager of the Sanibel Island Historical Village.

Jose Leal, curator and science director at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum on Sanibel-Captiva Road, says it is a little more complicated than that.

"I don't agree, but I don't disagree," Leal said. "It is very difficult to gauge. But you have orders of magnitude more people walking the beaches now than you had 30 years ago. Because of that, the best shells are picked up really, really fast. The wealth is more divided."

The abundance of shells is largely dependent on the weather, with winter storms depositing shells on the island's beaches.

"The water is really shallow," Leal said. "The shells are moved more easily from the water to the beach."

Live shelling is banned on Sanibel, so if the shell is "occupied," leave it alone. "The shell is an intrinsic part of the animal," Leal said. "People do like to observe the animals in the shells."

Sanibel's beaches, while considered fabulous by many northern visitors, don't compare to Sarasota's Siesta Beach in sand quality.

But in Sanibel's defense, its beaches are not fringed with condominiums, either. Nature prevails. Park your car at Bowman's Beach and you can enjoy, or endure, quite a long walk through mangrove forests and over tidewater lagoons before you reach the beach.

Sanibel's public beaches are not exactly convenient, either. Most of the beachfront on the 11-mile-long island is private-access. The public beaches are relatively remote, one at either end of the island, with the largest, Bowman's, near the west end. Lighthouse Beach Park, at the east end, is closest to the three-mile-long Sanibel Causeway, which has a $6 toll.

"Some residents would like to see it at $15 or $20," said Alfino. Especially in season.

The crescent-shaped island, unusual (for Florida) in that it runs mostly east and west, is very much a paradise for tourists and snowbirds drawn to all those shells, with enough shopping to occupy the occasional rainy winter day or the constant humid summer afternoons. It has fine homes, lush landscapes and 25 miles of inviting paths for walking and bicycling.

Then there is the traffic. The main road on the east end of the island, Periwinkle Way, is so jammed during season that left-hand turns are best made only in an emergency. (The locals know how to get around making mostly right-hand turns.)

Other than the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, the old lighthouse, the shell museum and the beach, Sanibel is short on tourist attractions. But it does have a remarkable historical village. Located on land donated by the city, Sanibel Island Historical Village has a collection of nine pre-1940 buildings, many from the Settlement Era, that attract 10,000 people a year. It is a great way to keep vacationing families occupied as the sunburns heal.

"Sanibel stooping" for seashells at Lighthouse Beach Park, Sanibel Island. (Staff photo / Harold Bubil)

"Sanibel stooping" for seashells at Lighthouse Beach Park, Sanibel Island. (Staff photo / Harold Bubil)

The village is a partial solution to the problem of redevelopment. As in Sarasota, Sanibel attracts wealthy people who tend to tear down historic buildings and replace them with grand new houses.

The problem is acute because Sanibel is nearing build-out. As an island, there is not a lot of room to spare, said Alfino.

Playing a key role is the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, which pre-dates the City of Sanibel's 1974 incorporation. Its role has been "to conserve as much land as they could on the island," Alfino said. "They have done about all they can. Two-thirds of the island is conserved, and they bought the Bailey land and conserved the house in its original location.

"There are few empty lots. We are 85 to 90 percent of the maximum number of units allowed on the island. We will see quite a number of old houses being demolished and new houses built on their land."

Summer's light traffic facilitates moving buildings to the historical village. Earlier this year, Shorehaven, a 1924 kit house, was moved in.

The Sanibel Island Lighthouse dates to 1884. (Staff photo / Harold Bubil)

The Sanibel Island Lighthouse dates to 1884. (Staff photo / Harold Bubil)

"It was slated to be torn down several times," Alfino said. "The owner did get his permit to tear it down, but he would have been a pariah had he done so -- everyone was so against it. He eventually sold it and the next family donated it to the city, and it was at our cost to move it. A large mansion is there now."

The City of Sanibel has a Historic Preservation Committee that works with the history park staff. "They have to approve our acquisitions," Alfino said. "It is more like a historical commission. Most of them are docents here."

The ultimate problem for Sanibel's preservationists is that the historical village is running out of space, and several key houses are still at their original locations, where redevelopment is a threat.

The most important one is the Bailey homestead on Periwinkle at Donax Street, said Alfino. "In 1899, Frank Bailey founded the Sanibel Packing Co., which is now the Bailey General Store, still existing, still family owned. SCCF bought that property with the home on it. They are doing various work on it. The exterior looks wonderful, and the land is exquisite. They are going to have a native nursery there."

The stock of old buildings, some of which date to the island's early days as a resort, agricultural base and fishing destination, includes churches that are still in use. "The Cooper Home is an old home, and on both sides is part of a shopping center. It would have to be torn out and restored."

It is a good thing Sanibel has its shells, because agriculture was a tough slog there in decades past. An effort to grow castor beans failed in the 1870s. The land was productive, but at only 3 feet of elevation, the island was swamped by hurricanes in 1910 and 1926, the storm surge salting the soil.

Last resort?

Sanibel, Punta Gorda, and Bradenton have historical villages where old houses can be saved from demolition, but the idea of an "old folks' home" for buildings is controversial among preservationists.

"I have always had mixed feelings about those kinds of historical villages," said Lorrie Muldowney, preservation specialist at the Sarasota County History Center. "From a strict historic-preservation point of view, when a historic home is relocated, you lose a lot of important information. You lose the context of the site.

"If there was a home on Siesta Key, its location would be important to our understanding of that structure, because it was located by the water and it had served as a fish house. When a home like that gets relocated inland, the story of it can become confusing or even be lost."

Harold Bubil

Recipient of the 2015 Bob Graham Architectural Awareness Award from the American Institute of Architects/Florida-Caribbean, Harold Bubil is real estate editor of the Herald-Tribune Media Group. Born in Newport, R.I., his family moved to Sarasota in 1958. Harold graduated from Sarasota High School in 1970 and the University of Florida in 1974 with a degree in journalism. For the Herald-Tribune, he writes and edits stories about residential real estate, architecture, green building and local development history. He also is a photographer and public speaker. Contact him via email, or at (941) 361-4805.
Last modified: December 28, 2014
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