KEY LARGO -- Many privately-owned businesses along the Overseas Highway have become all too comfortable with using the public rights-of-way to attract customers, according to some Upper Keys activists.
"We just want to clean up the area," Key Largo Federation of Homeowner Associations member Key Thacker told the Free Press.
Thacker and the federation successfully lobbied the Monroe County Commission late last month to step up enforcement of county code to address roadside clutter. The county has agreed to begin cracking down on illegal signage in the right-of-way.
"It's something that's been coming down the pipe," Thacker said.
Recently, the Florida Department of Transportation began its own enforcement action, spawning an online protest from local business owners and their supporters.
Thacker said she and others began complaining first to FDOT after hearing multiple complaints from visitors describing the island as in disrepair with unappealing businesses frontage. The federation then demanded action from the county.
Local officials have ignored illegal signs, Thacker and others say, due primarily to the 2008 economic downturn and, more recently, to onoing road construction that makes it difficult to access businesses.
According to FDOT, its right-of-way enforcement is related to its resurfacing of U.S. 1 with wider, paved shoulders. Consequently, many businesses have lost areas they previously used for parking and sign placement. Some have tried to make use of the newly completed roadway.
"With the recent completion of a FDOT construction project over 6 miles of four-lane, divided roadway between mile markers 100 and 106, it became apparent several businesses were destroying freshly placed sod and also damaging new asphalt with the display of watercraft and vehicles for sale," FDOT spokesman Brian Rick wrote in an email. "The Florida Department of Transportation wishes to protect the investment made with public tax dollars and prohibit unauthorized use."
The new enforcement has affected a number of businesses, including the Tower of Pizza shopping plaza, Harriet's Restaurant and Island Market Place, to name a few.
Key Largo Chamber of Commerce President Craig Cope said the chamber has taken no official position on the recent actions of the state's road agency.
"The businesses need to understand what is going on," Cope said. "We need to find out and educate them."
Cope said FDOT was never very stringent about right-of-way use in the past.
"Every once in a while they would send someone down from Miami, but that would be it," he said.
Some local business people, however, have created a Facebook page titled "Stop FDOT" to protest the enforcement, as well as a Change.org petition, which has collected 455 signatures.
Among the signers are the owners of Snapper's Waterfront Restaurant and Keys Kritters. Others describe themselves as Florida Keys property owners or residents.
A number of out-of-towners have also found the petition through social media.
In a 138-word description, the petitioners are calling for FDOT to open up public rights-of-way to businesses at no charge.
"Recently, FDOT has begun demanding that local businesses lease this right-of-way, which has been freely used for decades," the petition states. "FDOT has threatened to plant foliage, block parking areas and even seize items unless local businesses comply with their monetary demands."
Rick did not respond to questions regarding the claims made in the petition.