Trucks and trailers are lined up at the boat ramp on the east end of Marathon on a Saturday to pull out boats idling in the basin. SARA MATTHIS/Keys Weekly

On Aug. 17, a picture of a pickup truck and boat trailer parked on new landscaping on the edge of Aviation Boulevard sparked a fresh wave of fury in Marathon. The truck’s marking identified a Naples business and many locals called or texted the owner about the infraction.

The truck and boat trailer was pictured across the street from the boat ramp at the corner of Aviation Boulevard and Harbor Drive. There are two more public boat ramps in Marathon, at the former Quay property at the east end of Marathon, and at 33rd Street behind the Marathon Yacht Club. 

“Since the weekend before mini-season (July 24-26), truck and boat trailer traffic has been backed up around the neighborhood behind the airport,” said Marathon City Councilman Mark Senmartin. “I live back there. I try to take the long way around to go home, but there’s no avoiding it. It’s insane.”

Some neighbors in the zone behind the airport (BTA) are becoming increasingly restive. They have complained on social media about having driveways blocked and damage to personal property such as lawns. Wendy Bonilla, who lives in the neighborhood and also owns a vacation rental cleaning business, said she doesn’t know the answer, but “something has to be done.”

On Aug. 11, the City of Marathon amended its “water and mooring fields” ordinance to include a provision that prohibits boats 26 feet or longer from using the Harbor Drive boat ramp. The fine would be $50. The ordinance that passed, after a very long meeting and with no additional discussion by council members at the second reading, states “enforcement would be carried out using protocols acceptable to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office with potential assistance from citizen volunteers.”

Marathon City Councilman Luis Gonzalez, who also lives in the BTA neighborhood, said he’s not comfortable with that definition. 

“Right now we have a combination of law enforcement agencies who are helping out at the boat ramps during the weekend — Monroe County Sheriff Office, border patrol, Florida Highway Patrol, Key Colony Beach police as well as city public works employees. Everyone is working together smoothly. But I am uncomfortable about putting the burden of enforcement on local residents. There could be confrontation and these people are just trying to help out the neighborhood. I think we need ramp attendants,” said Gonzalez. 

When the City of Marathon elected to close its three boat ramps to everyone but local homeowners (which also excluded Key Colony Beach residents) during mini-season, it hired a private security firm to enforce the rule at a cost of $8,000 to $10,000. Local law enforcement agencies such as the sheriff’s office, which has a contract to police the City of Marathon, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation (FWC) declined to assist as, they said, their efforts were better served on the water to catch violators of lobster mini-season law. Plus, the agency spokespersons said, they didn’t have enough notice to call in additional personnel. 

“That’s the million-dollar question,” said Senmartin of who would enforce the new boat size law at the Harbor Drive ramp. “The sheriff does not enforce local ordinances, which is one of the problems I have with the service it provides. I guess the city code enforcement will have to enforce it. We have four code officers including the director. Just like the parks department, some people will have to work weekend and evening shifts.”

On Aug. 15, a Saturday, there were about 20 trucks and trailers (most waiting to collect a boat from the ramp, evidenced by the empty trailer) lined up at the ramp at the former Quay property. The line of traffic spilled out onto U.S.1 and law enforcement directed the orderly line. The 20-plus parking spots at the Quay, newly refurbished with fresh asphalt and striping, were already filled by 10 a.m.

Gonzalez acknowledges that the ramps are always busy in summer months, but may be under extra pressure during 2020 because of the pandemic quarantine that sees fewer U.S. citizens traveling abroad or, at least, not cross country on an airplane. 

“A lot of folks are going to water destinations, like the Keys, for their summer vacation,” he said. 

The boat ramp use in Marathon is further pressured by other factors: closures of public boat ramps in Islamorada (until Labor Day) and county-owned ramps in the Upper Keys (which ended Aug. 9.). There are about 1,000 vacation rentals in Marathon and Key Colony Beach (Key Colony Beach does not have a public boat ramp) and most rent weekly from Saturday to Saturday. Peak hours for boat ramp usage are Friday evenings and Saturday mornings.

“This could be solved if Realtors started changing the schedule to check in on Tuesdays or Thursdays. That would help with boat ramp traffic as well as grocery stores if diverted to different days,” Bonilla said, adding it’s a fine line that could potentially affect her own small business that contracts to clean vacation rentals. “Maybe we could base the weekly rental based on vacation rental licenses; odd and even numbers would check in on different days.”

Is there a need for another boat ramp in Marathon?

“Yes. Most definitely, yes,” said Senmartin. “The best place would be at the city marina, that would be a smart location.” He said there’s enough room for turning and room to build a station for an attendant. Other possibilities mentioned by residents and officials include another ramp at the Quay property or behind City Hall.

Senmartin and Gonzalez both said they want to explore the possibility of launch fees. Private marinas charge as much as $20 to launch and pull out. Both said they would favor no fees or a minimal annual fee for locals, while visitors can pay the full cost to support attendants and enforcement. 

Senmartin also said he wants to explore if Realtors can help advertise the parking situation at vacation rentals; whether there is space at the house itself or if renters need to find a paid lot to park the empty trailer. 

The amended ordinance recently passed by the city does note the possibility for vehicle and boat trailer parking fees, without naming specifics. The Quay boat ramp has room for about 20 trucks and trailers, the 33rd Street ramp has room for fewer than 10, and there is no parking at all at the Harbor Drive ramp. Earlier this year, the Marathon City Council also discussed the possibility of paid parking at Sombrero Beach as a way to generate revenue. 

“I think there needs to be further discussion. This ordinance is just a starting point and the impact isn’t going to go away,” said Gonzalez. 

Michelle Franck, a resident who lives behind the airport, agreed. “My biggest wish is that we could have a true brainstorming session with our city leaders on all of these issues our city has. Marathon is growing leaps and bounds. Our leaders need to address how all this growth affects the people who live here. I know that many people have great ideas, but for the most part, we don’t feel listened to.”

Gonzalez said popular sentiment is becoming more bitter.

“We’ve reached a boiling point,” he said. “We need to continue the discussion.”

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