Florida Keys News
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Village, state tackle crowd, access issues

ISLAMORADA -- The village, along with the three state agencies that have jurisdiction over portions of the Indian Key and Tea Table fills, have begun talks aimed at ameliorating crowd control problems along the 2-mile waterside stretch of highway while preserving access to the area.

"We need to act quickly," said Florida Department of Transportation Project local administrator Patty Ivey, noting that a plan must be in place well ahead of the fall of 2015, when the state road agency will put a highway widening and shoreline restoration project for the fills out to bid.

Ivey met on Aug. 12 with officials from the village and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which controls the waters around the fill, was not represented at the meeting, but agency boating access coordinator Pat Harrell said she has had discussions with Ivey as well.

A second meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 26.

Ideas, thus far, are coalescing around a boat ramp and dock that the FWC sought to put in on the oceanfront of Indian Key fill two years ago. It would have replaced the simple earthen ramp boaters currently use in the same vicinity. But the FWC shelved the plan due to village objections that the agency did not intend to install adequate parking and sanitation facilities to go along with the new ramp. Though FDOT owns the large majority of the fills, the village is responsible for maintaining them.

The village also expressed concern that the proposed 40-foot dock would hinder navigation in the adjacent Lignumvitae Channel.

A greater sense of urgency could increase the chances that a new ramp will fly this time around. But along with it would come clear commitments to maintenance parking and sanitation, Ivey said.

The issue of large crowds on the fills exploded in May with the start of the summer swimming, boating and barbecuing season. Islamorada Public Works Director John Sutter publicly criticized FDOT for not doing more to reduce the crowds and manage the fills, saying some of the merry-makers are unruly and that they leave behind an unacceptable amount of litter that his staff must clean.

At a meeting later that month, the Village Council made clear that it shares Sutter's concerns but also wants to maintain public access to the fills. FDOT has consistently said it wants the fills to be open to public use.

At an interagency meeting last week the parties came up with a sort of rough sketch of how the improved fill would be managed, Ivey said.

The bike path would be moved closer to the water so that motorists won't have to drive across it as they go to park. FDOT would install two launches for paddlers along the ocean side of the fill. FWC would build the long-discussed boat ramp. A small bathroom would be built near the ramp. FDOT would also develop a series of clearly delineated parking areas along the stretch of road.

In addition to those visitor enhancements, the working concept includes new restrictions on parking in areas that aren't delineated lots, as well as new limits on allowable activities along the fills. Most notably, the agencies discussed a prohibition on tents and other canopies, Ivey said. Currently, many of the day-users set up tents for comfort as they spend hours socializing at the water's edge.

Village Manager Maria Aguilar, who attended the Aug. 12 meeting, said the village is open to the working proposal. But she spoke hesitantly, since she has yet to bring the matter before the Village Council.

"We're just kind of taking it step-by-step," Aguilar said.

One issue that could still be contentious is FWC's proposed 40-foot dock along the shoreline. Harrell told the Free Press last week that it would only extend 10 feet beyond the mangroves and would not impact navigation.

"If people are going to come that close to shore, they are going to run aground anyway," she said.

Ivey, though, said meeting attendees were discussing an alternative tie-off structure, called a concrete fender, which would extend along the shoreline.

FDOT will hold a public scoping session before any plan is finalized for the fills, Ivey said.

The agency would likely fund various components of the plan within larger projects, such as the 2016 shoreline fortifying and road widening project.

jgore@keysnews.com

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