FLORIDA KEYS -- Representatives from the Florida Department of Transportation met in Marathon and Islamorada last Friday to offer explanations on ongoing and future projects along the Overseas Highway.
In the Upper Keys, with a road resurfacing project and the installation of a bike path and wider shoulders, many roadside businesses have seen the state take back areas ignored for decades. Many had made use of those rights-of-way for parking or to install signs and flags to attract customers.
"You can't use the right-of-way for commercial purposes," said Gus Pego, supervisor of the local FDOT office. "This is public property."
According to the Key Largo Federation of Homeowner Associations, the citizen's group didn't push the county code enforcement department or FDOT to enforce right-of-way violations for several years after the 2008 recession. But recently at a Monroe County Commission meeting, the group asked the county to begin cracking down on businesses violating code.
In Key Largo, Harriette's Restaurant's experience sparked outrage among many business owners who fear the state's road agency is playing hardball instead of working with them.
At the restaurant, FDOT contractors installed a large landscaping feature between the business and U.S. 1 to prevent customers from parking in the right-of-way.
Harriette Mattson, owner of the café, has lost several parking spaces and seen the highway frontage become a lingering construction zone.
At the FDOT meeting in Islamorada, Mattson was reluctant to discuss her situation. She met previously with FDOT officials at the behest of state Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo.
"It's supposed to get worked out," Mattson said.
"We are going to make it smaller," Tom Martinelli, a government affairs representative with FDOT, said of the landscaping feature.
Mattson had long known her front parking spots were in the right-of-way, but was still surprised to learn from FDOT of the impending construction just a day before the work crews arrived.
Another upset Key Largo business is D-Hooker Sports Bar & Grill, which claims FDOT removed its sign.
According to George Valdes, who manages the restaurant, FDOT officials have not been responsive or cooperative.
"We're going to have to litigate," Valdes said.
Raschein, who organized last Friday's meetings, said Valdes should have contacted her office for assistance as Mattson did.
Islamorada Village Councilman Mike Forster, who owns a restaurant in the village, acknowledged that business owners had an opportunity to provide input on the current road project when FDOT held public meetings during the drafting of its five-year highway master plan.
"I failed to act," he said. "Now everyone is showing up at this, and we are in crisis mode."
He called the day's events "poignant and not adversarial." Minutes before the Islamorada meeting, both Raschein and Forster were making rounds through the audience asking for patience and coolness from the crowd.
Despite FDOT undertaking its five-year plan, there is still room for compromise, Forster said.
"I would say it's a new FDOT," he said.
But Robby Majeska, a pet store owner and an elected wastewater official in Key Largo, said he has never heard of FDOT's five-year plan and never had the opportunity to speak about it.
Forster's advice is for such business owners to take any unresolved grievances to their local leaders.
"People need to take the information they got from this meeting and take it to their local representative, whether it be a village councilman or county commissioner," he said.