A proposed swim zone off White Marlin Beach is on hold for now after members of the public couldn’t join the virtual meeting on July 16 to share their input. Meanwhile, a preliminary millage rate has been set as council members prepare to dive into the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. 

Islamorada Village Council’s meeting of nearly five-and-a-half hours saw back-and-forth on the second reading of an ordinance that would create a vessel exclusion/swim area located north of Port Antigua and White Marlin Beach on Lower Matecumbe Key. Passed unanimously on first reading last month, the proposal aims to regulate the navigable areas and not the private beach within the community, according to village officials. 

Issues have continued off the beach where boaters anchor to enjoy a day on the water. Boat traffic and activity has increased in the area over the years, leading to noise, trashing and trespassing. 

More than 165 comments, written and verbal, were received in relation to the ordinance. A little more than 15 residents for and against the proposal joined the Zoom meeting to express their viewpoints, but a number of residents couldn’t take part due to a capacity limit of around 100. As a result, the council agreed to defer the ordinance to a future meeting. 

Rick Hoskins, a local resident who announced his opposition to the swim area, said he had at least 40 to 60 people who were not able to attend due to the limitation of 100 people. 

“We had a lot more support who are not able to comment,” he said. 

Mayor Mike Forster said the village increased capacity on its Zoom calls so people will be able to join and comment during meetings. A special meeting has been set for Aug. 12 at 5:30 p.m. via Zoom specifically to hear the second reading of the ordinance.

As for the proposal, Village Attorney Roget Bryan said the ordinance isn’t proposed to regulate any of the upland beach area along any portions of the swim area. Bryan said it’s purely regulating the navigable waters, waterward from the mean high water line. Per chapter 327 of Florida Statutes, Bryan said the village has the authority to create certain boating-restricted areas, for the purposes of vessel safety. 

“This is being designated as a public swim area, not a public bathing beach,” he said. “There is indeed a southern, or landward boundary from the area, and it is the mean high water line. That’s where it starts and goes waterward.”

David Webb, president of the Port Antigua Homeowners Association, said the majority of the residents declared that maintaining the status quo at the sandbar is no longer acceptable. He said the proposal addresses the issues that are “offensive to Port Antigua residents.”

“I urge you to move forward with this,” he said. 

Attorney Paul Savage spoke to council members on behalf of 29 local homeowners adjacent to the proposed swim zone, 27 in the Port Antigua community and two in the White Marlin Beach community. Savage said everyone understands the issue out on the water to be a serious problem. The proposal, however, isn’t the correct regulatory tool as it’ll create a public beach and draw more people and more trespassers. 

“He (the village attorney) says it’s clearly marked that there’s an upland boundary when in fact it’s not,” he said. “It doesn’t say anything in the text that it’s an upland boundary. There’s a ragged, undefined edge along the beach which basically makes this a public beach. The village is formally and officially saying in its code and in its map that this is going to be a public beach.”

Council’s next meeting is set for Thursday, July 30 at 5:30 p.m. via Zoom. It’s unknown, however, if the item will be on the agenda. Vice Mayor Ken Davis proposed that a special meeting be held solely to address the proposal.

In other matters, village council determined the proposed preliminary millage rate for fiscal year 2020-21. Maria Bassett, finance director and current interim village manager, said TRIM (Truth-in-millage act) notices will go out in August with a preliminary millage rate established to initiate the budget process. 

“The objective is to set a rate that results in net ad valorem tax revenues sufficient to cover anticipated general fund expenditures in the coming fiscal year,” she said. “We need to set a rate high enough to work with to avoid incurring the costs associated with noticing property owners of any intention to adopt a higher rate than what’s on TRIM notices.”

Councilwoman Deb Gillis acknowledged there are uncertainties as the coronavirus pandemic continues. She proposed the council start at a millage rate of 3.1, which is 2.47% above the roll-back rate, and work toward 3.01. Council agreed. 

“It’s a tight year,” she said. 

The 2020 gross taxable value in the village is $3.9 billion, per the Monroe County Property Appraiser. 

As for the upcoming lobster sports season, council verbally agreed to follow Monroe County’s curfew for restaurants from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. from July 24 to Aug. 19. No alcohol sales will be allowed nightly from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., per the county’s ordinance. Bars are still closed via the state Department of Business and Professional Regulatory’s emergency order. 

“This is just a deterrent and not a cure-all, silver bullet,” Forster said. “We have to take steps to stem the tide.”

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