UPPER KEYS -- Concerns are rising in Islamorada that recent water access closures on Card Sound Road will bring even more people to the already-crowded Indian Key and Tea Table fills.
"I think it can happen. I definitely do," said Islamorada Sheriff's Office Capt. Corey Bryan. "It's typical. You move people around and it puts stress on other areas."
Bryan's comments came last Wednesday, a few days after what the Islamorada Public Works Department said was an unusually busy weekend along the fills.
Crowds on the 2-mile stretch of highway between Upper and Lower Matecumbe keys typically increase in the hot summer months, when mainlanders travel south to swim, fish, ride personal watercrafts, barbecue and party.
Clean-up after busy weekends, including the recent weekend of April 26 and 27, takes days, Public Works Director John Sutter said.
Monroe County, at the urging of Mayor Sylvia Murphy, closed several Card Sound Road water access points early last month, saying Miami-Dade residents were creating a mess there for law enforcement officers. Illegal personal watercraft usages also kept on-the-water officers busy, she said. Murphy complained of loud partying, litter and even religious animal sacrifices.
The county, with the assistance of Monroe County Sheriff's deputies, closed off spots people for many years have used as a staging ground for recreational pursuits. Personal watercraft and flats boats came down and launched on the weekends, while families held picnics along the shore.
"Those areas are not boat ramps," Murphy said last week. "They are not access at the end of the road."
The mayor also says she wants to create a more appealing Card Sound Road, which is used heavily by Ocean Reef Club residents as well as those needing an alternate route to the mainland.
"When I drive that road, I want to see a prettier Card Sound Road," she said.
More closures are to come. Access points at Mosquito Creek and Steamboat Creek on Card Sound Road will soon be cut off. Murphy said the closures are further necessitated by Miami-Dade County beginning to close off areas to personal watercraft users, which has pushed them south to Monroe County.
Roberto Aguirre, a Miami-Dade resident who says he has regularly fished along Card Sound Road for seven years, hopes the county won't close the remaining creeks.
"I love coming down here and fishing on the weekends," he said.
The fisherman said not all visitors to the area leave the type of mess Murphy claims as he pointed to a nearby trashcan. He also noted there was no trash on the ground.
The closures, though, don't only impact fishermen and personal watercraft users. For kayakers, paddle routes featured in local guidebooks along Steamboat Creek and neighboring waterways are effectively closed.
"They're just going to have to paddle somewhere else," Murphy said.
Murphy described the moves as routine right-of-way maintenance for the county, which is why the placement of concrete barricades and no trespassing signs didn't need to be brought before the Monroe County Commission. The county didn't discuss the closures publicly, Murphy said, because the access points were not official boat ramps.
Aguirre, meanwhile, said he thinks the county just wants people to be forced into using a for-fee boat ramps.
Indeed, when asked where visitors from the mainland should launch their boats, Murphy said they could use the ramp at the Caribbean Club, which costs $10. If they are looking for a free boat ramp, she suggested they go south to Islamorada.
That's what villagers are afraid of.
Sutter said his staff spoke with a couple personal watercraft users during the April 26-27 weekend who had ventured to the fills because they could no longer use the Card Sound area.
"We're going to see an increase," he said.
Islamorada has long pushed for tougher usage rules along the Indian Key and Tea Table fills, but unlike the county, which owns the south portion of Card Sound Road, its hands are tied. The fills are part of the Overseas Highway and are controlled by the Florida Department of Transportation.
Last summer, FDOT installed 20 additional no parking signs along the fills, agency spokesman Brian Rick said.
But some village officials and residents want the state to do more.
"The council must, in a proactive effort to preserve the integrity and sustainability of our village, insist unequivocally that FDOT respond to the area of Tea Table Relief," former Lower Matecumbe Key Association President Donna Gleason wrote in an April 29 letter to Mayor Ted Blackburn.
Sutter, too, has grown frustrated with the state. Last summer, FDOT officials installed the new signs, helped the village control parking along Lower Matecume Key's Sea Oats Beach and talked about installing riprap along the shoreline of the fills to head-off erosion and to limit personal watercraft entry points.
But beginning with a meeting last August, Sutter said, the agency's attitude changed.
"What does the village have to do get FDOT to take responsibility for managing their own property?" he asked rhetorically.
In an emailed response to Free Press questions last week, Rick said the road authority strives to strike a balance between access and resource protection.
"Even though requested to do so, we really cannot prevent the use of publicly owned property," Rick wrote. "FDOT acts as the steward of such property and tries to ensure safe use by creating paved access points to enter and leave U.S. 1 and, through posting of no parking signs, re-directs users away from areas where there is no paved access, eroded shoreline or where there has been boat launching activity at sites other than boat ramps."
Sutter said that with crowd problems having emerged in late April, he's bracing for a long, busy summer on the fills.
"I'm concerned with the size of the crowd that was there already," he said.