Florida Keys News - Islamorada/KL Free Press
Wednesday, April 2, 2014
Raft-up inaction upsets residents

ISLAMORADA -- With the summer boating season just two months away, the village is yet to settle upon a method to rein in the burgeoning party scene that unfolds just yards off a private Lower Matecumbe Key beach.

"There is no quick fix and clear solution," Village Attorney Roget Bryan said at a Village Council meeting last month.

Meanwhile, some residents of the Port Antigua, Sandy Point and White Marlin Beach neighborhoods, which share the private beach, are growing impatient with what they view as dawdling by city officials.

"They're shying away from it," said Fred Feitel, who served as president of the White Marlin Beach neighborhood association until early this month.

At issue are the raft-up parties that have become a staple just a couple hundred feet off the private beach on hot summer weekends. Last summer, some residents of the three neighborhoods put together an organized campaign in an effort to get the Village Council to implement restrictions that would end the parties.

They say the revelers, who number as many as 1,000 people on holiday weekends, play loud music, defecate in the water and are damaging the environment. Among other measures, the residents asked the village to create a no-motor zone extending to 300 feet from the shoreline.

The village, though, says that jurisdictional complications have precluded any easy solution. Along with Islamorada, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary have jurisdiction over the nearshore waters of Florida Bay.

The upshot, says Councilman Ken Philipson, the village board member who has taken the lead on the matter, is that changes need to made in coordination with the state.

On that front, Philipson said, he's trying. He said he's even turned to Adam Hollingsworth, Gov. Rick Scott's chief of staff, who has a home on Lower Matecumbe Key.

"I wanted to go straight to the top," Philipson said.

Philipson credited Hollingsworth with facilitating two conference calls over the winter between village officials, FWC administrators and a couple of the chief Lower Matecumbe advocates for quieting down the White Marlin and Port Antigua beach area.

Hollingsworth didn't take a phone call for this article, though he said through a spokesman that he had taken no role in the issue because it is a local concern.

One potential solution that has come up is to turn shallow waters off the homeowner's beach into a swimming zone. But Philipson said that even that idea presents difficulties because the beach stretches half a mile -- much more space than is covered by the typical swimming zone.

"The swimming area can't extend over the whole area," he said.

The residents who want to tamp down the parties, though, aren't buying all the explanations for inaction.

"I think the holdup is that the state wants the village to do something and the village doesn't really want to do anything unless the state is really clear and positive in all their stipulations," said Martin Moe, who lives on the White Marlin portion of the beach. "And the village is worried about getting sued as well."

Philipson acknowledged that the village is indeed concerned about litigation from the boating lobby if it were to put in a no-motor zone around the privates beach. And council members have also said that they want to respect the concerns of those Port Antigua, White Marlin and Sandy Point residents who don't want a no-motor zone around the neighborhood beach. In letters last summer, some property owners who don't live directly on the bay wrote that they enjoy boating up to the beach on family excursions.

Still, as the first major summer party weekend of Memorial Day draws nearer, the dispute over what to do about the raft parties has become emotional at times.

In an email in early March, for example, beachfront resident Mike McLoad accused Councilman Dave Purdo of willful inaction on the issue.

"We cannot wait for elections. Your constituents will not forget this," he wrote.

Purdo responded by telling McLoad that he doesn't like to be threatened.

"[I]f you ever want to meet and settle this differences (sic) man to man just give me a call," he wrote.

Tough words aside, advocates who say the lack of progress on the Lower Matecumbe offshore parties reflects a lack of political will have history to draw on. The village has taken the lead on water regulations in the past. In 2002 Islamorada was the first Keys town to ban snorkeling and diving during within 300 feet of shoreline during July's two-day lobster mini-season. Monroe County and other local governments soon followed suit.

On this issue though, the village has so far gone no further than tasking the local Monroe County Sheriff's Office sector with beefing up patrols off the White Marlin/Port Antigua beach once the summer arrives. Meanwhile, attorney Bryan plans to deliver a report next week on possible future steps.

rsilk@keysnews.com

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