Sanibel tried to kill me twice, once with riptides, the other with alligators. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the island manages to occupy a place in my heart.
Maybe it’s because when I was a kid in the ’70s, my dad, a conservationist-minded sort, told me about the checks on development that preserved much of the island.
But nobody ever told me how the CIA helped make that happen.
Developers have had their eyes on the island for almost 200 years. Claiming Spanish land grants, the Florida Peninsula Land Company was organized in 1836 by a group of New Yorkers and a St. Augustinian named Lot Clark. Their claim extended from the mouth of the Withlacoochee to its headwaters in the Green Swamp, east to the St. Johns River, south to Okeechobee, and then west to the Gulf, including any of the coastal barrier islands between those points.
On Sanibel, the company plotted 50 home sites bordered by farmlands. This model is alive today in modern “agrihoods,” except the amenity of a local farm was subsistence-based rather than a luxury for this development.
The development met with moderate success until legal troubles, the Second Seminole War, and a hurricane that overtopped the island with saltwater, ruining the soil caused the dissolution of the company and abandonment of the settlement.
The island sat primarily ignored until after the Civil War, when planters came in and grew sugar cane and citrus until another hurricane overtopped the island in 1926, leaving the soil unusable from the saltwater.
But a parallel industry had shaped in the early part of the 20th century around tarpon fishing, and the focus shifted from agriculture to tourism.
One of those tourists was Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Jay Norwood Darling.
Darling’s outdoorsmanship and conservationist views aligned with the goals of The New Deal, which eventually landed him the position of Chief of the U.S. Biological Survey, later known as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
During his tenure in that position, Darling created the National Wildlife Refuge program and, utilizing his talent as an artist, designed the agency’s distinctive blue goose logo.
But the political world wasn’t the right environment for Darling; pushback on his initiatives left him disillusioned. He left government work in 1935 and became an advocate for wildlife, forming the General Wildlife Federation (now known as the National Wildlife Federation) to lobby for wildlife conservation. He also returned to Sanibel as one of its winter residents.
One of his efforts, the Inter-Island Conservation Association — comprised of green-minded residents of Captiva and Sanibel — successfully lobbied the Harry S. Truman administration and facilitated creation of the Sanibel Wildlife Refuge.
After his passing, the government renamed the refuge, and the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge today provides a meaningful bulkhead for preserving land from development and maintaining the island’s natural beauty and environmental significance.
Until 1963, Sanibel was only accessible by ferry, frustrating those who would develop it. With the construction of the causeway from the mainland, those developers rolled in. They bulldozed mangroves, dredged, filled and established a foothold at the base of the new means of access.
As an unincorporated area of Lee County, the island was subject to the county’s comprehensive development plan, which, when revealed, showed the beaches and shorelines lined with condos and high-rises.
The plan activated residents of Sanibel — many of whom possessed the green-minded, NIMBY mindset of affluent transplants and wanted to keep their relatively unspoiled island as they found it — organized to block further development. No small task, given the pro-development nature of the Lee County Commission.
But they found help and advocacy in the form of three retired CIA agents.
Don Whitehead, a former political science professor and CIA agent, retired to Sanibel, lured by the claim that “there were no condos on the island and never would be.” He and his wife were living in a simple block home with a swimming pool when one of Whitehead’s former charges, Porter Goss, fell ill in 1970 and was instructed by his doctor to “find a place with some peace and quiet” to recover.
Goss had worked for the Agency in Miami during the Cuban missile crisis, had vacationed nearby on Boca Grande with his family, and loved the area. At Whitehead’s invitation, he explored Sanibel and found it fit his needs.
Another of Goss’s former supervisors and former director of Planning, Programming, and Budget of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, Fred Valentin, soon joined them.
After Goss’ recovery, the three opened a boat rental business for fun and profit. But they soon found the initiative short on both. Reconsidering their business choice, they moved to open the Island Reporter, Sanibel’s first newspaper, in 1973.
Reporting on the activities of the Lee County Commission was part of their coverage.
Many points of Commission business included developers trying to build on Sanibel. Goss would attend these meetings, passing his notes to Whitehead, who would write them up for publication.
No community is monolithic in its views, and Sanibel was no exception. The pro-development minority of the island had the Commission’s ear, though. They saw Sanibel as a license to print money, and the County Commission was enthusiastically behind them.
Seeing this at meetings, Goss and the Island Reporter group took an anti-development editorial stand with the paper, encouraging the notion that Sanibel should incorporate and control its destiny regarding growth and development.
The Commission, developers, and their pro-development associates came together to create a campaign that painted pro-incorporation people as elitists who had their perfect paradise and refused to share it with others.
Besides, Sanibel was much too small to incorporate, anyway.
Was this a wise choice?
A campaign of disinformation and propaganda against a group championed by three ex-CIA agents who specialized in recognizing and creating disinformation and propaganda on a geopolitical level?
The pro-development lobby walked right into the Island Reporter’s sandbox. After Goss, Whitehead and Valentin pushed back with their own campaign, voters overwhelmingly approved incorporation of the City of Sanibel in 1974.
The newly elected City Council selected Goss as the city’s first Mayor, and together they put a comprehensive development plan in place. Goss, as Mayor, was the lucky recipient of legal papers every time a developer sued the city for denying their project because it was nonconforming to the city’s restrictive comprehensive plan.
That comprehensive plan, the creation of local preserves by the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, and the protections provided by the Ding Darling refuge are responsible for safeguarding about two-thirds of the island from unchecked development.
In the following years, Valentin succeeded Goss as Mayor. Goss was appointed to fill a vacant Lee County Commission seat in 1983 by then-Gov. Bob Graham after three Commissioners were arrested for taking a boat ride. An alleged mafia associate, Louis “Butch” Stramaglia, provided the boat. Butch also ran a construction company that just so happened to be vying for a county sewer contract.
Sex workers, paid by Stramaglia, joined the Commissioners on the boat, and — much to the dismay of everyone involved — the Lee County Sheriff’s department caught all of this on tape.
Goss was elected to Congress in 1989 and chaired the House Intelligence Committee for eight years until he resigned to take the position of CIA Director in 2004 before leaving two years later.
He still resides on Sanibel.