June 24, 2020

ISLAMORADA — The Islamorada Village Council took action last Thursday to tamp down two waterside flashpoints where daytrippers gather en masse.

The council reimplemented stricter parking measures along the Fills between Upper and Lower Matecumbe keys and approved on first reading a roped-off swim area where vessels are prohibited along a Lower Matecumbe Key beach that regularly draws hundreds of boaters on weekends for raft-up parties.

Both actions resulted from bad behavior primarily exhibited by Keys visitors, which includes parking violations, trespassing, urination and defecation on public and private property, loud music and damage to the fragile environment.

After the meeting, Public Information Officer Mary Swaney publicized that changes are afoot and prevailed upon visitors to be aware of and adhere to village rules. Flashing signs along the Overseas Highway also alerted guests to the expectations and procedures along the Fills.

The area called the “Fills” is a narrow series of causeways and adjacent land along U.S. 1 from mile marker 77.5 to 79.8 traversing Tea Table Key, Indian Key and Lignumvitae Key fills and the connecting bridges. The land is owned by the state but managed by the village under a lease agreement. The number of people gathering at the Fills to fish, picnic and launch boats has been out of control since the U.S. 1 checkpoints were removed June 1, according to council members.

Vehicles parked along the fragile shoreline and on the bike path created dangerous conditions during the weekend of June 12-14. Motorists pulling on and off the highway and people running across the road through heavy traffic also were hazardous. As the number of people at the Fills rose, so did the amount of trash, human waste, shoreline damage and human-made trails through the mangroves, Swaney wrote.

The village decided to reimplement measures from the summer of 2019 to control the amount of parking and areas of safe access on the fills. On Tea Table and Lignumvitae Keys, parking is allowed only in four areas with paved driveway aprons.

“Space is available for 15 to 18 passenger vehicles in each of the four areas,” Swaney wrote. “Visitors can walk from the parking areas to their desired picnic spots. At the Indian Key boat ramp, only vehicles with trailers may park in the parking lot; limited spaces are available.”

In total, there are approximately 90 parking spaces available on the Fills, she said.

“Parking restrictions will be enforced with citations and towing when necessary.”

The council also determined no tents with sides are allowed, although sunshades are permitted.

Parking signs are in place and vehicular access to no parking areas is blocked with 900-pound barriers. Cones have been placed near the bike path with ropes or tape to restrict vehicles from entering no-parking areas. Village staff was directed to manage traffic in the area, inform people when the parking areas have reached capacity and remove trash.

Portable toilets along with “supplies” are in place at a cost of $30,000 to village taxpayers. Also, in the 2019-20 budget, $47,600 was included under public works department for a full-time Fills facility attendant, while additional hourly employees were offered time-and-a-half pay for volunteering to work the Fills on the weekend.

Large trash drums have been place along the Fills and are to be emptied regularly by the public works department.

Visitors were asked to be conscious of the fragile shoreline along the fills, to place all trash in the trash cans provided and to “enjoy the area safely without damage to the environment.”

More than 100 residents addressed the proposed Lower Matecumbe Key swim area. It is to be a vessel exclusion zone, extending to 300 feet of the mean water line. Any vessel entering the zone would be subject to a citation of up to $250 under state law.

The budget impact would be about $7,500 to install signs and buoys and $2,500 annually for maintenance. The cost of additional enforcement by the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office is not known at this time.

According to the village clerk, 70 people who emailed or wrote letters favored the swim demarcation, 40 were opposed and 10 were neutral. Those in support referenced life and safety issues, environmental concerns and quality of life. Those against the demarcation worried about the water depth to ensure their children could safely swim in the area and protecting public access.

David Webb, representing the property owners of Port Antigua, said the key is going to be consistent and aggressive enforcement of the delineated swim area.

Councilman Chris Sante said, “We are forced to bring this ordinance into effect because of people who disrespect our quality of life.”

Vice Mayor Ken Davis added, “Trash and human and animal waste are going into the water. People have total disregard for our neighbors there and so I support the ordinance.”

Councilman Jim Mooney said the ordinance seems “harsh to some and not harsh enough to others,” adding that nobody offered a “better way” to address the problems. “[The ordinance] can always be tweaked.” It passed unanimously on first reading. A second reading and vote is required for adoption.

An item that had no opposition from the public or council was the redevelopment of the Marathon gas station and stores at mile marker 90.2, bayside, into a 7-Eleven.

The four-pump gas station and convenience store is to reconfigure the adjacent retail space and the two-story apartment/convenience story building into six gas pumps and a slightly smaller convenience store with a greater landscaping buffer between it and the adjacent property. The marine fuel dock will remain.

The staff report concluded, “The redevelopment of the convenience and gas service station will aesthetically and functionally improve the site and provide shopping opportunities within walking distance for surrounding residential areas and provide substantial vegetative buffers from residential uses.”

Another item addressed residents’ complaints about waste pick-up. Many have experienced no pick-ups during specified days of garbage, recycling and yard waste, and have complained to no avail.

Some council members said they understand Advanced Disposal, with whom Islamorada has a contract, has been bought by Waste Management, but Village Manager Seth Lawless said despite a contract with Advanced, there has been no communication to the village about the company being purchased.

According to research, “More than 13 months after Waste Management announced plans to acquire Advanced Disposal Services for $4.9 billion, the parties [awaited] federal regulatory approval.”

Village Attorney Roget Bryan said once the village receives a formal announcement, which he expects July 1, the council can address the matter. If the council wants to terminate the contract and consider a Keys vendor, they have to give 90 days of notice to do that. Some opined that going local and keeping the waste disposal money within the Keys should be considered.

The council agreed seeing how waste collection transpires in the next 30 days should give some indication of a path forward. The council meets next on July 16.