- Lee County
- Year Founded: 1974
In 1884, the Sanibel Lighthouse was constructed on the eastern part of the Island as a navigational aid for the cattlemen on the mainland. The cattlemen had an active trade with Cuba and needed the channels safe in San Carlos Bay. During this time, the Federal Government was looking for land to support winter-time farming in southwest Florida to grow crops that would feed the populations of the northern cities. Sanibel was deemed useful with its good soil, fresh water, and subtropical climate.
Farming began in 1885 with the arrival of the first homesteaders. From 1885 to 1927, fruits and vegetables from Sanibel were sent to Punta Gorda where they were then shipped by railroad to the north. At its peak, there were over 30 farms of varying sizes producing crops with over 350 workers. In 1927 big agriculture took over farming in Florida. Jobs became available on the mainland and the Sanibel population dwindled to about 90 people. From 1928-1960, these 90 or so people started a small tourist economy.
By 1974, the Island’s population grew to approximately 2,400. A group of local residents concerned with protecting the island’s wildlife and conservation of land to prevent over-development, were successful in leading a referendum, which was passed by the voters and led to the incorporation of the City of Sanibel. Following incorporation, the City adopted the Sanibel Plan, which has received national recognition by the American Planning Association. The Sanibel Plan limits building heights, land usage, and density, and emphasizes the protection of native vegetation and wildlife.
Today, approximately 70% of Sanibel Island is forever wild and 30% is used for business and residents. The 30% represents approximately 6,400 full time residents and business owners. Sanibel is approximately 17 square miles. The lack of density compared to other islands (Key West-8 square miles with 26,000 residents) is our selling point.