A canal backfilling project in the village of Islamorada is on hold after one resident voiced concern that he wouldn’t be able to use his large boat. Issues over the selection process for a contractor were also revealed during the March 2 village council meeting. 

Peter Frezza, village environmental resources manager, told the dais that a canal backfilling project at canal No. 116, located on North Plantation Key between Ocean and Plantation drives, began two years ago. Per the Florida Keys Area of Critical State Concern program, the village and other municipalities are being tasked with completing a number of canal restoration projects, with water quality improvement as the main goal. 

It’s the first time a canal in Islamorada was proposed to undergo backfilling. Frezza said Monroe County completed six canal projects in the Upper Keys by using backfill. Everything Frezza heard from those projects was positive. 

“They’ve resulted in dramatically-improved water quality for the residents living on these canals,” he said. “I haven’t heard any reports from engineers, county staff or residents that there have been any impediments to navigation in the canal because of the backfill … no issues with boats stored in the canal, no issues with davits being able to be used or issues with boat lifts being used.”

Frezza said the project is currently designed so the canal’s depth is 7.6 feet at mean lower low water, or the average of all the low water heights observed over the National Tidal Datum Epoch. Originally, the project was designed for a 6-foot depth at mean lower low water. With less backfill needed from the original proposal, the project cost was cut by $466,235. 

There were still concerns over the project even with the change. Resident Dave Boerner told the dais following Frezza’s presentation that he has the boat that draws the deepest depth at 5.5 feet. He said he bought property there because the canal was deep. Boerner had issues over depth calculations provided by the village and noted that it should consider filling deeper holes in the canal rather than entirely filling the canal. 

“One’s behind my house. It’s 17 feet deep. It’s stagnant,” he said. “Be careful what you ask for because sometimes you might get it. Instead of filling the deep holes we got, ‘let’s fill the whole canal in.’” 

Besides a few calls against the proposed canal backfilling, Frezza said most calls he took from residents in that area were supportive of the project. Frezza maintained that the village is using the best available data, which shows the project designed to provide 7.6 feet at mean lower low water. Reducing the quantity of backfill to provide more depth in the canal wouldn’t improve the overall water quality, according to Frezza, 

Overall, Frezza said he’s working on other canal projects that the village could proceed with this year. 

“We have 64 canals and I can very quickly move on,” Frezza said, adding that a canal ranking list showed No. 116 had the poorest water qualities. In addition, the neighborhood had homeowners who “were all about it,” Freeza said

“They were all in. Everything was going fine honestly until the one resident got involved and started talking to his neighbors. If they don’t want to do it, it’s fine,” he said. 

Frezza added that he’s ready to proceed with a backfill project on Lower Matecumbe. He reiterated that the state is requiring Keys municipalities to conduct canal restoration projects — failure to do so could lead to penalties from the state.

Councilman Mark Gregg said he needed a higher comfort level that the majority of people in the neighborhood are going to be satisfied with the project. 

“I don’t want the phone ringing that ‘I ran aground because you idiots filled in the canal too much,’” Gregg said. 

The council ultimately tabled the resolution to pick a contractor for the backfilling project. It’s unknown whether the matter will come back to the dais at the March 30 meeting at Founders Park Community Center. 

Before the tabling, issues were also heard regarding the selection of Orlando-based Sea & Shoreline as the contractor to conduct the backfill project. Last December, the village issued a request for proposals to secure a contractor to complete the backfill project. The village manager appointed an evaluation committee to rank and score the applications. The firm Sea and Shoreline was ranked the highest based on combined scores. Sea and Shoreline’s proposed cost was $1.588 million. Frezza said the scoring was close between Sea and Shoreline and Adventure Environmental, based out of Tavernier. Sea and Shoreline’s proposal was $211,000 less and its timeline was significantly less than Adventure Environmental. Frezza said it was those two factors that led to the scoring. No local preference points were issued in this RFP due to procurement policies of the grants and other potential sources for these types of projects.

“While cost is a major factor in the scoring, it’s not the only factor that’s taken into consideration,” Frezza said. 

The village hasn’t used the firm before but it has worked for Monroe County. Frezza said county officials and the village’s engineers spoke highly of Sea & Shoreline. Greg Tolpin, owner of Adventure Environmental, said Sea & Shoreline’s math didn’t add up when it came to hauling all the material needed for the project via dump trucks in 30 days. 

“In their proposal, they said they’d use three dump trucks running five trips a day to Florida City to pick up material and bring back. That’s awfully tough to do, Tolpin said. “The quarry closes at 3:30 (p.m.) and closes on weekends. I did the math on that, and it equals 90 calendar days”

Adventure Environmental conducted six backfill projects in the Upper Keys with success. 

“Nobody can do the job faster than us. This is all we do,” he said. 

Vice Mayor Sharon Mahoney had issues with picking an out-of-town contractor. 

“The more we can do locally the better for our economy,” she said.

Jim McCarthy is a Western New Yorkers who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 3-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. Jim is a sports fanatic who loves to watch football, mixed martial arts and golf. He loves to hit the links and play some softball with his Make A Play team. He also enjoys time with family and his new baby boy, Lucas, who arrived Oct. 4, 2022.