South Seas resort warns of lawsuit as Captiva residents seek bill to enforce density limits

Aerial view of parts of South Seas Island Resort in Captiva photographed Tuesday, June13, 2023.
Aerial view of parts of South Seas Island Resort in Captiva photographed Tuesday, June13, 2023.

Captiva residents urged lawmakers to scuttle Lee County's efforts to loosen height and density requirements for the island's hurricane-damaged South Seas resort at a county legislative delegation meeting Thursday morning.

“Most of the residents moved there because they liked the quaint village, the wildlife, the low density," Captiva Community Panel Secretary Bruce McDonald said. “It’s not Marco Island, it’s the exact opposite, and that’s how we want to keep it.”

But Hala Sandridge, an attorney for South Seas, warned legislators that passing the bill would violate the resorts' property rights and trigger a lawsuit.

“This bill would subject the state and local government to millions in damage claims, which would all be avoided by allowing this matter to go forward through the local legislative process," Sandridge said.

The bill, by Rep. Adam Botana, would set a referendum in 2024 to turn Captiva Island into a conservation area. The measure would codify the island's height and density restrictions into state law, with an exemption for building back hurricane-damaged buildings to conform with federal flood elevations.

Hurricane Ian destroyed the hotel on the South Seas property. Winter Park-based Timber Resorts, the lead company in a consortium that bought the hotel for $50 million in 2021, is seeking to rebuild the resort with more modern amenities.

Ronto Group President Anthony Solomon, whose company co-owns South Seas, told legislators that the bill would violate property rights and usurp the county's zoning process.

“This bill as we see it takes away those property rights and seeks to deny us the process, a very defined process with facts, to go before the county," Solomon said. "While we want to work with the community, we are very much against this.”

The rule changes approved by the Board of County Commissioners allows the hotel to be rebuilt with higher buildings and greater density in the number of units that can otherwise be built on Captiva. South Seas leaders have said they would like to erect a three-story hotel with a height of up to 63 feet. The owners say the added height will help the island become more resilient to rising tides during severe storms.

South Seas was limited to an elevation of 35 feet above the grade at the site or 42 feet above high tide, whichever is less. Its owners have argued that because requirements for minimum height at the shore have increased to protect the island from the sea, structures must squeeze or eliminate some planned floors.

A building of one story in structures such as a new South Seas hotel would be no taller than 18 feet per story, which could mean even a second story could be too high, Timber Resorts CEO Greg Spencer said earlier this year.

Shawn Farrell, a Timber Resorts employee on Captiva, opposed the bill, describing South Seas as an "economic engine" and job generator for Lee County.

But most of the public comment period was taken up by Captiva residents supporting Botana's bill and opposing the county's rule changes.

Supporters told legislators they want the hotel to conform to the existing Captiva Community Plan, which sets a goal of enforcing "development standards that maintain one and two story building heights, and historic low-density residential patterns."

“This conservation district is an attempt to keep what we have. What we have is very precious," Sanibel Mayor Richard Johnson said. "Unlike the county, we have listened to our constituents.”

County government reporter Bill Smith contributed to this story.

This article originally appeared on Naples Daily News: South Seas warns lawsuit as Captiva residents seek conservation bill