County commissioners on Wednesday unanimously approved a law banning adults inside the new gated playground at Higgs Beach "except in the company of children."
The vote was taken after three speakers bashed it as underhandedly aimed at homeless men and women, and more than a month after the signs went up on the black fence that cordons off the park from the rest of the public beach.
"It doesn't say homeless adults, it says all adults," Commissioner Kim Wigington said in response to the criticism from one Key West resident who lives in a van, along with a Key West surgeon and her attorney husband.
Monroe County's latest misdemeanor is punishable by up to 60 days in jail, a $500 fine, or both.
Four commissioners said the law is in the best interest of child safety -- for those under 15. Children 15 and older are also not allowed without a younger child.
"Why would adults want to be in a small children's park in an enclosed area?" Wigington asked rhetorically.
County Attorney Bob Shillinger said the law would take effect in about two weeks, after County Mayor David Rice signs it and the county clerk sends it to the state.
The playground rule is legally sound, Shillinger's team said Wednesday.
"There are numerous other parks that could be attended by anyone," said Assistant County Attorney Pedro Mercado. "I don't see a problem with this withstanding constitutional muster."
The commission amended the county's ordinance on parks more than a month after signs went up outside the little beachside park, where the black fence also cordons off the only outdoor grills and covered picnic tables at the public gathering spot.
Commissioners Heather Carruthers, of Key West, and Sylvia Murphy, who represents the Upper Keys, said the prohibition is to ensure the safety of kids -- not to target the homeless who once claimed a spot where the playground sits.
"I couldn't be happier with the ordinance," said Murphy. "I'm sorry the signs were put up ahead of time. Somebody simply jumped the gun and put it up there before we had a chance to vote on it."
As a great-great-grandmother, Murphy said she wished every park created for children in the Florida Keys had the sign to ward off predators.
"There are people who come there, and they don't necessarily do anything, but they watch the children and it makes us very, very nervous," Murphy said.
The opposition that showed up Wednesday only numbered three residents, yet one couple heatedly called the county's new law a divisive attack on the poor.
"We all know what the motivation behind this is," said Lawrence Harkenrider, a lawyer who depicted the law as pure discrimination. "It's to get rid of the homeless people so the rest of us don't have to endure their unsightly presence. I'm sure there are people who will say 'hooray.'"
Rose Chan, a general surgeon at Lower Keys Medical Center, questioned the commission about why all the barbecue grills were removed from public access at Higgs Beach.
"We would like to sit there and use the barbecue, but all of a sudden we are excluded," said Chan, who is married to Harkenrider. The couple has no children.
Commissioner George Neugent, of Marathon, said the park ban has "discrimination that lies below the surface," but that it's a laudable goal to create safe playgrounds for children.
"We have the rights to create a children's park and to exclude those who don't qualify," Neugent said.
Key West police officers were shooing away childless adults from the park before the commission voted on the law, said Shahdaroba Rodd, an 11-year resident of Key West.
"I'm 65, I don't have any young children," said Rodd, who calls Higgs Beach home and sleeps in his van. "Therefore I can't use a public beach?"
Rodd, who later said he has a 47-year-old son, criticized the commission's method and intent for the park ban.
"You have admirable goals," said Rodd, who wore one of his trademark stovepipe hats -- this one rainbow-striped. "It's worked: The bums are gone. However, the method you've used is not admirable. The signs there are not factual."
Rodd said the law excludes childless couples, tourists and gays and lesbians.
"It's a playground for kids," replied Carruthers, whose wife recently gave birth to their daughter. "It doesn't have to be your kid. The rest of the beach is open."
Carruthers said parents in Key West wanted playground equipment on Higgs Beach.
"It's to keep out anybody who shouldn't be there," she said after the meeting. "It's directed at any lingering adults."