A management plan will proceed at the Fills — the popular visitor spot in Islamorada — per an agreement with the Florida Department of Transportation that gave the village management abilities.
Village council members recently directed staff to present a recommendation for a consultant to assist in the development of a plan at the virtual meeting on Thursday, Feb. 25. A management plan is required under a pair of five-year lease agreements with FDOT and Florida Department of Environmental Protection that were approved by the former council last year.
FDOT owns the right of way that spans Tea Table, Lignumvitae and Indian Keys, while FDEP owns the Indian Key boat ramp, which many use, including local backcountry guides.
Interim Village Manager Maria Bassett told council members earlier in the month that the initial step in the village’s efforts to manage the Fills was securing a consultant. Issues at the popular visitor spot, MM 77.6 to MM 79.6, came to a breaking point during Memorial Day weekend in 2019, as residents expressed immense frustration over the trashing, mayhem and degradation of nearshore waters.
Designated parking spots, implementation of trash bins and a reduction in speed to 45 mph — thanks to Sheriff Rick Ramsay — have occurred since then. And last July, council approved the installation of a cable barrier system to delineate parking areas and protect grassy areas, all while keeping people from parking on the Overseas Heritage Trail. It was the least expensive option at an estimated $322,000. A new barrier wouldn’t go up, however, without approval from the current council.
“As staff has previously tried to emphasize, any matters related to the Fills will be brought back to the village council for input and/or approval,” Bassett said. “As developed, the consultant will confer with the council, and opportunities for public comment will arise.”
Per a request for proposals, the selected consultant would assess the village’s need for directing and managing recreational traffic for public safety purposes on FDOT property. It would also create a conceptual plan for directing and managing recreational traffic usng a cable barrier system. The consultant would attend at least two meetings to discuss the master plan for FDOT property, and a final master plan report would be presented to council on or before May 31, 2021.
As for FDEP property, which includes the Indian Key boat ramp, the consultant would assess the village’s need for protection of coastal resources and the marine environment and current protection methods. Development of a conceptual plan would address managing parking spaces, the boat ramp and protection of coastal resources.
“The management plan should improve the safety and enjoyment of the area while reducing the environmental damage caused by overuse, including an appropriate level of parking and recreational space,” according to the scope of services.
At least two meetings would be had on the FDEP master plan, and a final master plan report would be presented to council members on or before May 31, 2021.
With the Fills an area of interest for Councilman David Webb during the campaign, he said he’s not in favor of spending for infrastructure on FDOT property. Webb told fellow council members that providing bathrooms and parking will only slow down traffic for those looking to pull off.
“I went down there several times during my campaign on random times of day, and the traffic is horrendous” he said. “There’s no way to safely walk alongside the road there. There’s no way to safely go from one side to the other if your camp place is here and the bathroom is over there.”
Improvements to the boat access point is something Webb would support with use seen from local residents and backcountry guides who trailer their boats.
Councilman Mark Gregg said it’s vital to maintain the two leases, which have subsequent five-year renewals. The lease with FDEP took effect on June 16, 2020 with two five-year renewal options. A lease with FDOT took effect September 2019 and ends in September 2024. It, too, has a five-year renewal option.
“I guess we have a threshold decision: Do we want to give it all back to the DOT and DEP? And my answer is, ‘hell no.’ We got here because of problems that were there because they did nothing,” he said. “And, yes, we’re spending money on it and that’s DOT land and so forth, but maybe that’s the price we pay for the privilege of controlling to our benefit and liking,” he said.
The Feb. 25 meeting begins at 5:30 p.m. Due to the size and configuration of the Founders Park Community Center, which serves as the council chambers, and in keeping with CDC and Florida Department of Health guidelines, capacity of the Community Center for village council meetings will be limited indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic. Only council members and essential staff members required to conduct the meetings will be in physical attendance due to the limited capacity.
The public can watch on Monroe County’s MCTV Comcast channel, 77, via Zoom or by visiting islamorada.fl.us.