A group of concerned citizens visited village officials and engineers to offer their vision on the future of the Fills — the islands connecting Upper and Lower Matecumbe Keys — during an open house on Oct. 6. Criticism over the meeting’s notice to the public and concerns over potentially developing the land were heard before residents sat down one-on-one with consultants leading the master plan process.
A public input workshop afforded residents the opportunity to share their ideas with consultants from CPH Inc., the firm hired by the village in March to lead a master plan effort. Before that began, residents Capt. Ed Davidson and Van Cadenhead spoke out over the meeting format and the way it was advertised. Davidson acknowledged that notice of the meeting on short notice wasn’t adequate. Cadenhead said what was occurring was an “insult to the people of Islamorada.”
“There’s no record of this. There’s no public video record of this,” Cadenhead said.
Village Manager Greg Oravec stepped in to offer the reasoning behind the meeting and told public members in attendance to come together to figure out a way to make the Fills better than its current state.
“I think it’s a low bar because right now we have 1,000 orange cones and a bunch of rope,” he said. “My hope as village manager is that we have a community-driven process that results in everyone owning a piece of this plan. And it might not be perfect in the end, but if we work hard, smart and together it’ll be better than rope and orange cones.”
Anger and frustration over use of the Fills, owned by Florida Department of Transportation and Department of Environmental Protection, came to a boiling point soon after Memorial Day in 2019. With vehicles and people packing space on the small land came issues of immense trashing and safety concerns as people would cross a busy U.S. 1. Residents flooded village hall during a meeting to relay concerns and the need to quell the chaos, and several measures were taken to mitigate some of the issues.
Instances of overcrowding were still seen a year later in June 2020, when daytrippers and visitors ventured to the popular spot for a day by the water. The Fills, which were closed since mid-March 2020 as a COVID-19 protection measure, reopened to visitors along with the rest of the Keys. And with the reopening of the area came increased activity, illegal parking, citations and complaints.
In an effort to gain control of state property, the village approved and executed two five-year sublease agreements with FDOT and DEP in April 2020. Months later, the former dais said “yes” to initiate a master plan per a requirement within the subleases. Last March, council members approved CPH Inc. to assist the village in creating a master plan.
“We don’t have a plan set of what’s going to happen,” said Todd Hendrix, of CPH Inc. “We want to gather information, facts, concerns and interest before getting to work.”
Resident John Timura recalled the 2019 village meeting when many residents filed into village hall to discuss the Fills. Others who couldn’t get in sat outside from bleachers watching a TV as the concerns were heard. Two years later, Timura said the village hired a company to make potential changes to property that many were up in arms about back then.
“I think we’re all happy with the state of things (at the Fills) right now,” he said. “All we need is nice pilings and rope.”
Resident Barry Wray acknowledged that there’s anxiety over the Fills, and rightfully so following the many years of activity that degraded the area.
“I think we’re all driving the master plan. It wouldn’t have changed if it wasn’t for this community driving the master plan,” he said. “That was from the reaction that happened back when we shut down the Fills.”
Islamorada Chamber of Commerce executive director Judy Hull said there’s an opportunity to beautify the Fills through the master plan.
“Orange cones are the opposite,” she said. “We want to see improvements.”
With the community input session complete, a community survey on the Fills went out to village residents beginning Oct. 11. Surveys are due back Nov. 1, with results posted thereafter. The next public input session is set for Dec. 1 to discuss concepts based on what people envision based on the initial outreach.
From there, a concept would be developed in January 2022 with another public workshop set for February 2022 to present three to five ideas. A presentation would then take place for the council to view and vote on.
Councilman Mark Gregg said the village is taking the right approach by involving the public through various workshops, allowing the final product to contain community input and not just council and staff recommendations.
“Everyone has buy-in through this process, and that’s a good thing,” he said.