February 6, 2019

ISLAMORADA, Village of Islands
TheeWhale Harbor 'Wheel Ditch' channel, about a third of a mile long, will become an idle-speed zone.

ISLAMORADA, Village of Islands TheeWhale Harbor 'Wheel Ditch' channel, about a third of a mile long, will become an idle-speed zone.

ISLAMORADA — With no objections raised, village officials chose safety over speed for the boating channel known as “the Whale Harbor wheel ditch.”

The 1,600-foot-long waterway, a narrow and unofficial pass flanked by mangroves, will be posted as a no-wake/idle-speed zone as soon as marker buoys can be approved and installed, Village Council members voted unanimously Jan. 31.

The channel on the western edge of the bayside harbor near mile marker 84 was the scene of a deadly accident last April that killed a passenger when a flats boat ran into mangroves. Three other people aboard were injured. A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission crash report lists “excessive speed” as one of the causes.

Powerboats will be allowed to navigate through the channel but must throttle back to a slow speed “no greater than that which will maintain steerageway and headway.”

The Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association “is in full support of a no-wake area” at the pass, group commodore Steve Friedman told the council. A marked navigation channel lies “about 30 seconds away so it doesn’t deter you too much,” Friedman said.

A “wheel ditch” is an unapproved channel created by decades of boat use. Many are shallow and difficult to navigate. Causing unapproved damage to the marine bottom now is illegal in the Florida Keys.

The much longer and wider Robbie’s Wheel Ditch, off Lower Matecumbe Key near Robbie’s Marina, is not affected by the decision on the Whale Harbor pass.

In other action during last week’s meeting:

• The council approved negotiations with Ferreira Construction Southern Division on a $1.6 million contract for a stormwater management program at the Venetian Shores subdivision.

The first phase of the drainage system with gutters and catch basins would be installed on Bayview Isle Drive, Villa Bella Drive and a portion of Venetian Boulevard — streets at the northern end of the subdivision.

Ferreira, a Stuart-based company, underbid local contractor J.A. LaRocco Enterprises by about $38,000.

Councilman Jim Mooney said since the difference was relatively minor, he preferred the work “should stay in town.”

Staff and other council members said much of the construction money likely will come from state grants and sources that do not allow “local preferences.”

• The council gave tentative approval to a $315,000 purchase of three vacant lots near Plantation Key School that can be used for six affordable housing units. A private firm will be sought to build and manage the housing. An Orchid Street lot with pending code fines will be purchased for $50,000, about half the going price for similar property.

Mayor Deb Gillis said that in less than a year, Islamorada has “set in motion more than 35 affordable-housing units” for construction in the village and possibly more.

• Upper Matecumbe Key resident Joseph Bertolami persuaded council members and staff to review facility plans for the Key Tree-Cactus Preserve, a conservation area.

Bertolami said a proposed “gazebo” lies too close to his residence and could create trash problems and conflicts. Three council members recommended that staff consider moving the project to the west side of the preserve, near a commercial marina.

• Ed Davidson, a Plantation Key property owner, chided the village in the public-comment session for not publishing advance agendas of its municipal advisory committees online.

“This is a serious problem [and] a disservice to taxpayers,” said Davidson, an environmental advocate and former Monroe County School Board member. Committees that make recommendations to the elected council “directly affect the quality of life,” he contended.

Agendas for Islamorada’s eight advisory boards are available upon request, Clerk Kelly Toth said.

kwadlow@keysnews.com