Florida Department of Transportation District Six Secretary Gus Pego responded to citizen and council concerns Tuesday night regarding ongoing discussions of the dangerous intersection of U.S. 1 and Aviation Boulevard as well as the potential loss of parking spaces in Marathon’s Olde Town Business District with the installation of the Overseas Heritage Trail improvements.
Two months ago, Attorney Richard Warner formed “Save Our Spaces”, a loose association of interested Marathon residents, who are speaking out against what they deem excessive taking of space.
“We need that overflow parking for events like the Seafood Festival at the Community Park,” Warner implored. “A couple of weeks ago, those parking spaces were jam packed.”
Pego replied to Warner’s concerns about overflow parking by saying that, “Anytime a municipality in the Keys holds a large scale event like that, people park wherever they can. Our main concern is for the safety of pedestrians and bike riders along the highway.”
He continued that throughout Monroe County, the state-owned right of way along U.S. 1 is occasionally used for alternative purposes, either with permission from FDOT or by way of a property lease.
“We do plan to work with both the city and county to make the project’s impact easier for businesses,” Pego explained.
Councilman Dick Ramsay repeatedly contended that the city and other vested parties should be given consideration before major changes are made to the roadway.
“Right now, I don’t feel like we’re partners,” Ramsay suggested. “These projects do affect our properties, our people and our businesses.”
Vice Mayor Mike Cinque, co-owner of The Stuffed Pig, said as one of the business owners along U.S. 1 in Olde Town, loss of spaces and accessibility has always been a concern.
“We pay taxes to be on U.S. 1, so I’d like not to have that grassy area right in front of my business,” Cinque offered, adding that with available side and rear parking, it wasn’t as much of a concern for him as other business owners like Daffy Doug’s Discount Dollar or The Keynoter office.
“They’re backing right out into oncoming traffic, so it is a concern.”
Cinque compared recent efforts from City Hall to listen to citizen concerns regarding a planned 12-foot wide bike path along Coco Plum Drive. Just because the money is immediately available from grants or state and federal coffers doesn’t mean residents shouldn’t have input on how they want their city to look, he suggested.
Following his observation that Overseas Heritage Trail through Islamorada varies in width in order to preserve that city’s business facades, Warner suggested Marathon should be given the same consideration for trail modifications.
“When they (Islamorada business owners) realized the impact the trail would have to their business, the state stepped in and allowed two painted lines along the highway,” Warner said.
“The same should be applicable here in Marathon. What’s good for some parts of the trail may not be good for other parts of the trail.”
Pego contended that “there’s a lot going on in a very small space” with regards to parking along U.S. 1 right of way. He said the Overseas Heritage Trail board would like to continue to allow people to park along the highway, but a history of accidents at 35th Street have raised numerous concerns over the issue.
“With regards to having bikes closer to the road, there’s no curbing and therefore no clear definition between the driveways and the roadway,” Pego stated.
He accepted Ramsay’s suggestion to have the project’s chief engineer come from Tallahassee to Marathon to speak with City Manager Roger Hernstadt.
“Before they go and gift us with this Heritage Trail, we need to figure out if we really want it,” said Planning Commissioner and Exit Realty Owner Morgan Hill.
In other business:
• Mayor Ginger Snead reported on what she called a successful lobbying trip to Washington, D.C. Seven meetings in a day and a half with Hernstadt, Finance Director Peter Rosasco and key leaders in the nation’s capital included discussions on storm and waste water funding, repairs of roadways in Little Venice and the purchase of Boot Key.
“We invited each of them to visit Marathon and see what our little town has to offer,” Snead reported, adding that the Army Corps of Engineers told the council contingent that Marathon had “the most successful environmental restoration project in the country.”
Hernstadt reported that on Tuesday afternoon prior to the meeting, he received an email from the Army Corps instructing the city to continue spending money on eligible projects and submitting for reimbursement as soon as possible.
“They encouraged us the continue staying the course,” he reiterated.
• Councilman Pete Worthington brought up for discussion what he felt an inadequacy on the city’s part address a citizen’s concern of possible ethics violation by Councilman Ramsay.
“The commission said it wasn’t their job to enforce it, the city attorney said it wasn’t his job to enforce it,” Worthington pondered. “Somebody needs to enforce our charter. It certainly seems like there’s a problem that needs to be addressed.”
Attorney John Herin said if the council needed a legal opinion on the matter, his firm could offer one, but it would not be legally binding.
“If you want to pursue an opinion from the state attorney general, you can do that,” he responded to questions from the council.
Ramsay asked Herin to canvas the Florida League of Cities for an opinion on how they would handle a similar issue with regards to their charter.
“If we feel as a council that there needs to be further investigation, we can check with the League of Cities and see if we need to take any action,” Ramsay said, “But I don’t want to make a mountain out of a mole hill.”
Worthington contended that he’d had similar discussions with Herin a month and a half ago and was under the impression a solution would be coming forth shortly.
Mayor Snead, who is responsible for maintaining order in the meetings, said that if an ethics violation had occurred and it is the city’s responsibility to handle the issue, they needed a concrete answer on how to proceed with the issue.
The council instructed Herin to return with a preliminary report on the issue in two weeks.
“We shouldn’t need Mel Fisher to find it out for us,” Cinque said.