Lengthy discussion ensued during Islamorada village council’s June 18 meeting on a measure requiring vessels to anchor farther out from a popular Islamorada bayside sandbar. When all was said and done, the dais unanimously approved the first reading of an ordinance that creates a 300-foot vessel exclusion, swim zone from the mean high water line off the Port Antigua and White Marlin Beach shoreline on Lower Matecumbe Key.
Action by council comes in the wake of high vessel traffic congestion on the sandbar, where a bevy of boats anchor and enjoy a day on the water. Vessel numbers are especially high on weekends and holidays like the recent Memorial Day weekend, which saw well over 100 boats. The high volume has also brought immense littering that has impacted local waters and the shoreline, as well as disorderly people walking up to the private beach and homes.
“The idea and purpose is to address from a safety standpoint the significant amount of congestion in the shallow area and push them out so there’s a proper area for swimmers to enjoy from water and land,” Village Attorney Roget Bryan told council following public comment for and against the ordinance. “This is not regulating the beach or upland area. This is only to address from the mean high water line to approximately 300 feet. As far as issues of private versus public beach access, the village is not regulating that.”
Discussions over Port Antigua and White Marlin Beach issues date back to 2014 when council discussed ongoing issues associated with party boats anchoring in the shallow water. At that time, the village attorney presented officials with an update and options to mitigate the matter.
Per council communication, a town hall meeting was held on May 14, 2014 to gain input from residents within the Port Antigua community, and on May 22, 2014, village council discussed the results of the town hall meeting and the consensus views expressed by the residents to establish a swimming, no-motor zone in the area. Council members considered the item at a first reading on June 24, 2014, but based on the public comment received in opposition to the proposed swim area, they voted not to move forward with the proposal.
Fast forward to February 2020, when concerns were raised again over escalating boat traffic and activity in the areas. As a result, council members directed staff to engage further discussion with residents of the Port Antigua on a possible vessel exclusion, swim area.
From those discussions, at the update given by staff at the May 21, 2020 regular meeting, the council directed staff to draft an ordinance for consideration that would create a swim zone in the area.
Councilman Chris Sante said the problem surrounding the bayside sandbar revolves around the disrespectful visitors who trash the area, which forced council to bring forth the ordinance.
“We’ve got to restrict it and protect our area,” he said. “As all of us have said, we’re just trying to give people a better quality of life here.”
Well over 100 comments were read into the record and heard when the topic came before council members. Around 70 for the proposal, 40 against and one neutral were read into the record. Nearly 20 speakers relayed their positions verbally on Zoom.
Opposition to the ordinance from residents in the Port Antigua community, acknowledged concern that the swim zone would negatively impact quality of life for residents. Some said it would infringe on residents’ use of the beach and restrict local property owners from accessing the beach by boat in an attempt to keep others out.
“People will wade in,” said Rick Hoskins.
Port Antigua resident Lee Ramirez said it’s not a solution the area wants, referencing a survey the homeowner’s association conducted last November, which asked whether they’d support a 300-foot no motor zone.
“Fifty-one percent said ‘no,’ so there’s not overwhelming support to do this,” he said, adding another survey, asking the same question, was done on April 11. He said 52% answered ‘no’ to the village’s proposed solution.
Robert Moser, a member of the Lower Matecumbe Beach Property Owners Association, said over 100 families were polled and support an ordinance. Jen Wiggins, who owns a home on the beach, expressed her sadness over the fact her children cannot enjoy the water. She said she’s seen all sorts of items along the beach, including rugs, shell casings, maxi pads and broken beer bottles.
“The safety issues are out of control, sanitation is out of control and the environmental impact is out of control,” she said. “This is out of control and something needs to be done.”
David Webb, president of the Port Antigua Property Owners’ Association, said survey results from the 300 property owners regarding the issue were sent to the village. He said the overwhelming majority have stated on numerous occasions that the status quo is no longer acceptable.
“The ordinance is not our first choice,” he said. “Even though it’s not our first choice, in recognition of residents here in Port Antigua demanding change, the entire and unanimous board of directors of Port Antigua supports the ordinance.”
Webb said they’ll assist with enforcement through communications to inform the public and hire off-duty sheriff’s deputies.
“The key is going to be aggressive and efficient enforcement,” he said.
The ordinance doesn’t require any prior approval by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) as Florida statute gives the village the authority to create certain boating restricted areas, including vessel exclusion, swim areas. Regulatory permits would be needed from FWC, U.S. Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers, however, for installation of waterway markers and signage.
Estimated costs for signage and markers is around $7,500, according to the village. Annual upkeep is approximately $2,500. Additional costs for additional enforcement by Monroe County sheriffs is unknown at this time. Bryan said staff will conduct a proper survey of the area to determine the number of buoys required for the zone.
Boaters who violate the ordinance and pilot their vessels into the swim zone would be cited with penalties up to $250.
Mayor Mike Forster said the village has jurisdiction 1,200 feet from the shoreline. He said he believes an ordinance is the “right thing to do” for the peace and enjoyment for residents, as well as the safety for all.
“When you go over the Channel 5 bridge and go northbound and you can see the proliferation of boats that far away, you know there’s a serious issue,” he said.
Vice Mayor Ken Davis said there are many reasons to enact such an ordinance.
“Most importantly is the negative impact on the environment this is having; the trash, garbage and human waste is all going into the waters there,” he said. “People have shown total disrespect and disregard for the environment and for all people who live there.”
The second reading of the ordinance will come at council’s July 18 meeting.