UPPER KEYS -- Tougher restrictions are on the way at Islamorada's Indian Key and Tea Table fills as fears of a spillover from the Card Sound Road closures persist.
New parking signs, striping and no-parking area delineators could possibly be installed along two-thirds of the fills in time for the always-busy Memorial Day weekend, said Patty Ivey, local project administrator for the Florida Department of Transportation, which owns the fills.
Meanwhile, one Monroe County commissioner said he believes his board should weigh in on the closing of water access spots along south Card Sound Road at a future meeting.
The closures, which were implemented by the county Public Works Department over the past month, were undertaken at the behest of County Mayor Sylvia Murphy without any public discussion.
"We are probably going to have to discuss it," said County Commissioner David Rice, whose district spans from Marathon to Islamorada.
Rice said there may be alternatives to just closing off the area.
"It's a very unique location and maybe we should have tried beefing up law enforcement," he said.
Rice, however, stopped short of saying it would be he who would bring up the matter at a county commission meeting. Murphy has previously indicated to the Free Press she has no intention of bringing the item before the commission.
Along south Card Sound Road, an area that usually hosts dozens of Miami-Dade County weekenders, the former water access spots were virtually empty Saturday.
One Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer present at Steamboat Creek said he didn't realize the put-in had been blocked off. The officer was in the process of tracking down a man suspected of illegally taking lobster.
FWC spokesman Bobby Dube said patrols are not consistently called to Card Sound Road, but when they are, officers find violators.
County Engineer Kevin Wilson, who heads the department that closed the access, described the closures as permanent but seemed open to changes if directed by county leaders.
"In the short-term, this is the way it has to be," he said.
Wilson said the changes on Monroe's side of Card Sound Road is part of a multi-agency action taken with Miami-Dade County on its side of Card Sound Road.
Miami-Dade officials declined to speak about the matter with the Free Press.
Discussion about the closures was plentiful in Islamorada last week.
All five members of the Village Council agreed that, while water access is pivotal to maintain, parking needs to be limited along the 2-mile strip of fills between Upper and Lower Matecumbe keys, where mainlanders descend during the summer to swim, fish, ride personal watercrafts, barbecue and party.
The crowds of people leave behind piles of trash, accelerate erosion on the fills and even use the bay and ocean as personal toilets, Public Works Director John Sutter and other village officials say.
"It's not that we discourage people, it's the number of people," Mayor Ted Blackburn said, likening the fills to an overcapacity restaurant or meeting hall.
But it was a slim 3-2 majority of the council that supported the push by Sutter to ask FDOT to put up the improved signage as soon as possible.
Vice Mayor Deb Gillis and Councilman Mike Forster, instead, expressed concern that without sufficient public announcements, such limitations would backfire on Memorial Day weekend, forcing hoards of visitors from the mainland to decide whether to obey the new restrictions, and if so, where to go instead of the fills.
Meanwhile, prominent voices expressed opposition to a long-range proposal Sutter put forward to discourage use of the fills by turning them into a scenic overlook.
"We certainly don't want our hotels and others unable to have access to the water," Islamorada Chamber of Commerce President Joe Roth said.
Under Sutter's plan, which he described as preliminary, recreational use along the fills would be limited to passive activities, such picnicking and observing the view. Forty-eight parking spaces would be provided, but only for relatively short periods of time. Nobody could hang out at the fills all day.
The proposal, however, wouldn't apply to the boat ramp and parking area toward the southern end of the fills, which is owned by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, rather than FDOT.
The Islamorada fills and the south Card Sound Road area are just the latest focal points in the long-running discussion about how to manage numerous public water access points in the Upper Keys.
Over the past several years, arguments in favor of greater restriction for purposes of environmental protection and law and order have generally won the day.
During construction of the new 18-Mile Stretch roadway, FDOT shutdown down two public boat ramps. These areas have been fenced off to the public. Private boat ramps are still in place on the highway.
In Islamorada, there haven't been any closures. But last summer, FDOT, at the behest of the village, restricted parking along Sea Oats Beach in Islamorada. Meanwhile, at the small Blackwood Lane boat ramp on Upper Matecumbe, the village facilitated a neighbor's effort to install plantings in the area of the right-of-way that people had previously used to park their boat trailers.
Andy Newman, who heads up marketing efforts for the Monroe County Tourism Development Council, encouraged the Village Council last week to strive to maintain access on the fills.
In an interview outside the meeting hall, Newman, who emphasized that he was speaking his own views and not those of the TDC, said he believes that too many closures throughout the islands could harm the Keys' reputation as a laid-back locale. He added that taxpayers throughout Florida were helping to pay for Keys sewer projects aimed at improving water quality.
"I just think the people of Florida deserve some return for that," Newman said.
Meanwhile, though, officials are searching for middle ground in Islamorada, something not given to those on Card Sound Road.
FDOT's Ivey said that after the new parking signs and markets go up, the agency's next step is to develop a master plan for the fills. She expects one or more public workshops will be held so that all stakeholders will be included in the process.
Ultimately, said Ivey, the plan should protect the resource and provide for access. Accomplishing those twin goals is likely to require a balanced approach of enhancing amenities in some spots so that access to other spots can be limited.
"We say, 'No, don't go there, but we have something over here that would function better for you,'" Ivey said.