ISLAMORADA -- The shallow waters off of Lower Matecumbe Key's Port Antigua, Sandy Cove and White Marlin Beach neighborhoods will remain open to vessels of all sorts.
The Village Council made the decision at a June 26 meeting in response to popular outrage over an ordinance that would have closed the half-mile stretch of water out to 300 feet from shore for all but swimmers.
Even the neighborhood and waterside residents who have intensely lobbied for a closure in the area for the past year in order to shut down summer weekend raft-up parties were dissatisfied with the ordinance because it would have banned kayaks and paddleboards, rather than only motorized vessels.
But in voting the ordinance down unanimously, council members gave clear indication that they don't plan to consider a less restrictive closure, which would make allowance for paddlers. Rather, they emphasized Islamorada's tradition as a boating locale, where people live, move to and visit to enjoy the waters.
Council members said that heavier enforcement is the proper approach to controlling raft-up parties off the Lower Matecumbe bayside.
"I do want to protect your right to a quiet enjoyment of life," Councilman Mike Forster told proponents of a closure at the June 26 meeting. "But I also want to protect what's a given right for everyone who grew up here."
The move away from any sort of closure was an about-face for board members, who told residents at a town hall meeting in Lower Matecumbe on May 14 that they'd make a closure on motorized vessels off the White Marlin Beach and Port Antigua neighborhoods happen. The crowd at the event was nearly unanimous in its support of such a step.
But in the weeks that followed, opposition, both from residents of Lower Matecumbe and from people across the village and beyond, grew.
At last week's Village Council meeting, a significant majority of the standing-room-only crowd was there to oppose any sort of closure.
"I'm for no change," said Linda Schmitt, a Port Antigua resident. "I live in paradise because I love the water. I love to boat. I like to swim, dive."
But proponents of keeping boaters out of what has become the summer party zone argued that new rules are necessary. "Enforcement don't do it," said Larry Zettwoch of Port Antigua.
Experience says he may be right.
This year the village added $60,000 to its budget with the Monroe County Sheriff's Office to pay for an overtime officer to patrol the waters off of Upper and Lower Matecumbe keys on busy summer weekends and holidays. The village also bought a new patrol vessel with the White Marlin/Port Antigua beach in mind. But officers say that existing village laws leave little leeway to get tough on the issues that bother people the most.
For example, Lt. David Carey told the council that officers can only approach someone who is playing loud music if there has been a complaint. And once the officer leaves, the person can turn the music back up.
Forster suggested that the village chip in another $60,000 for a deputy who would patrol only along the Port Antigua/White Marlin Beach shoreline. But the council took no action on the concept.
Councilman Ken Philipson questioned whether taxpayers villagewide should shoulder that expense.
"They want strong enforcement, maybe they need to raise their dues a little bit to pay for it," he said of the Port Antigua, White Marlin Beach and Sandy Cove associations.