ISLAMORADA -- A right-of-way planting project on Upper Matecumbe Key's Blackwood Lane has blocked off what was a common parking area for a boat ramp at the end of the short street.
Buddy Wilton, who owns the properties on both sides of the shallow-water bayside ramp, said he undertook the plantings as a beautification project. His long-term goal, he said, is to acquire the mile marker 81.9 ramp property.
"We're trying to make the place look nicer," Wilton told the Free Press.
But users of the Blackwood ramp believe Wilton's goal is curb access to the facility.
"The guy essentially bought a home next to a boat ramp, and he doesn't want to live that way," Key Largo resident Bobby Hall said.
Hall said that almost weekly he and his wife, Phyllis Bailin, launch their small boat from Blackwood Lane for a trip to the Whale Harbor sandbar. They also like to put their paddleboards in at the ramp and then head to the nearby Lorelei.
Wilton's Blackwood plantings first came to the attention of the village in the early spring, after he installed more than a dozen shrubs there and staked the roadside perimeter with rebar.
A few people complained, after which the village tagged Wilton with code violations for the rebar, and for planting in the right-of-way without a permit.
Wilton removed the steel rods and rectified the plantings by obtaining a permit from the village. The permit required him to replace the trees with break-away shrubs. It also approved the general layout of the plantings, which extend approximately 14 feet from his fence line. Without specific sign-off, village right-of-way permits require plantings to be within 5 feet of the property line.
The arrangement hasn't satisfied Lynn Whisenhunt of Key Largo, who, like Hall, uses the Blackwood ramp as a gateway to the sandbar. Though he acknowledges that he has found room for parking elsewhere on Blackwood Lane, he likened the more difficult parking situation to a taking of public water access without a hearing.
"Until such a time that it is done through proper channels, I think what they are doing is atrocious," Whisenhunt said.
Village officials disagree.
"That type of planting in the right-of-way is perfectly permissible. We have granted it many, many other times to other people in the village," Public Works Director John Sutter said.
The Blackwood ramp was always intended for neighborhood use, he added. And furthermore, village code does not allow for parking of trailers on the village's right-of-way.
That last assertion is the general position of the village and was also made by code officer Shane Suddreth in an April 10 email to Hall. Village code, though, doesn't speak directly to the issue of daytime parking of trailers in the right-of-way.
Questioned about the matter, Building Director Gerry Alberston, who oversees the town's two code enforcement officers, said the village bases its interpretation on a clause which explicitly allows boat trailers to be parked on private property.
Since removing the rebar, Wilton has replaced the rods with a series of orange traffic cones on the edge of the Blackwood roadway. He said the village code team has given him permission to use the cones in order to protect his newly planted grass, and that he'll remove them once the grass is sturdy.
In an interview last month. Village Manager Ed Koconis was dubious about whether they should be allowed.
"I can't think of a legitimate reason why somebody should have cones there," he said.