November 14, 2018

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The 'wheel ditch' channel off Whale Harbor in Islamorada could be closed to motorized boat traffic as a safety precaution. A woman was killed when a boat running through the narrow waterway crashed in April.

GOOGLE MAPS The 'wheel ditch' channel off Whale Harbor in Islamorada could be closed to motorized boat traffic as a safety precaution. A woman was killed when a boat running through the narrow waterway crashed in April.

ISLAMORADA — A local councilman wants to ban his own boat from a narrow channel off Whale Harbor, along with other motorized craft.

“I’m a guilty offender myself,” Village Councilman Mike Forster said last week. “It’s a thrill to go through there at speed, but it’s a thrill that can turn to death.”

A flats skiff traveling through the creek in April crashed into mangroves, killing passenger Jereima “Jeri” Bustamante, a 33-year-old aide to Gov. Rick Scott.

When the Village Council meets Nov. 29, Forster expects to introduce a formal resolution to ban powerboats from the bayside “wheel ditch” pass.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission must agree. The state agency has signaled its intent to go along, Forster said, “but without a resolution from us, they weren’t going to move. So we’ll get a resolution with marching orders to send to Tallahassee.”

The plan was endorsed by Monroe County FWC Capt. David Dipre, Forster said.

“The deciding factor for him is that there’s an open channel 50 feet away,” Forster said. “There’s no need for vessels to go in and out of there with their motors wide open. It’s unlike the [Lower Matecumbe Key] wheel ditch at Robbie’s Marina. We can open it to up to kayakers and paddleboards for a nice, safe day trip.”

A wheel ditch is an unofficial shortcut typically created by decades of use by boaters.

Islamorada’s Near Shore Water Regulation Citizens Advisory Committee also strongly backed restrictions on the narrow channel.

“No one should be going through there on plane, especially if you meet another boat” coming the other way, committee chairman Bob Mitchell said last month. “It’s too damn narrow.”

The pass has narrowed because of mangrove growth, Forster said.

“I don’t mind giving something like that up to the non-combustibles,” he said.

Other resolutions could be on the Nov. 29 agenda, Forster said.

“I’m tired of talking about the fills” between Upper Matecumbe and Lower Matecumbe keys, said Forster. “We cannot keep on with the degradation that’s going on there, and we have to stop waiting” for state agencies to act.

“I keep hearing how dirty it is and I’ve seen it myself,” he said. “We need to find out how many parking spaces can be there, establish a capacity and open it up in an orderly fashion.”

The scenic area with views of Indian and Lignumvitae keys and a free boat ramp has become highly used by mainland visitors, particularly on weekends. Uncollected trash and random parking that damages landscaping and natural growth have generated complaints.

“We’ve talked about it forever, but it’s like the ‘Groundhog Day’ movie — nothing ever changes,” Forster said. “It’s time to make some news.”

kwadlow@keysnews.com