A vessel exclusion zone/swim area off a popular beach in Lower Matecumbe received Islamorada Village Council’s approval during a special virtual call meeting on Aug. 12. The 5-0 vote came following two hours of comment from the public, mainly those living in the Port Antigua community, who were for and against the proposal.
Enacting a boating-restricted area off the beach looks to address ongoing issues associated with party boats anchoring in shallow water near Port Antigua and White Marlin Beach where homes and private property sit. Discussions date back to 2014 when a town hall was held to gather input from residents on the issue. Council considered an ordinance of a no-motor zone/swim area, but didn’t move forward due to opposition it received.
Fast forward to the village council’s Feb. 13 meeting when complaints were heard and a video played of the trespassing and tense moments between boaters and property owners. Council subsequently gave village staff direction to engage in discussions with the Port Antigua and White Marlin Beach communities over a proposed swim area as boating traffic and activity continued to escalate out on the water. That led to the proposed ordinance coming back to council, which gave unanimous support in June.
The proposal was the sole item during the Aug. 12 meeting after the public wasn’t able to get on the July 16 virtual meeting due to capacity limits.
The approved ordinance isn’t proposed to regulate any of the upland beach area along any portions of the swim area, according to Village Attorney Roget Bryan.
“It’s purely regulating the navigable waters, waterward from the mean high water line,” he said.
Resident David Stine, who expressed support for the swim zone, said the situation behind his house at Port Antigua Beach is out of control. He said it’s gotten to a point where his family can’t enjoy their house.
“I bought a house in a residential area and now I got a circus going on behind my house,” he said.
Not all believed the proposal was the right tool to address the problem. Resident Rick Hoskins said a 300-foot swim area is too much, as it would push people out to the wake zone.
“Past 300 feet, people are going 50 mph,” he said.
Hoskins and Alejandro Brito brought forth several proposals to address issues off the beach, which included an ambassador program to help control activities. They also said they’d like to hire private security to combat people hopping off their boats and trespassing onto private property. And they also want to enact the multi-faceted solution with the village, the Port Antigua board, residents, law enforcement and White Marlin community.
“We have 109 homeowners who do have actual unanimity with regard to two issues. Number one, we recognize there’s a problem that exists with respect to volume of boats, volume of noise and quality of life experience at the beach. We also agree that a proposed 300 feet anchor zone is not the solution.”
Jen Wiggins said many opposed to the proposal are not actual residents, but weekenders who use the village for “reckless behavior.” A resident of Port Antigua since the 1990s, she said she’s witnessed the activities in the water behind her home.
“Excessive drinking, marijuana use, defecating and urinating in the water and on land, trespassing, jet skiers flying within feet of people wading in the water,” she said. “Items washed ashore where people party include white powder in small baggies, bullet casings and broken beer bottles.”
The proposed ordinance establishing a swim area does not require prior approval by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Regulatory permits from the FWC, U.S. Coast Guard and Army Corp of Engineers would be required for installation of the waterway markers and signage for the delineated areas.
Estimated costs for installation of the regulatory markers and buoys is in the range of $21,500 to $37,500.
Councilman Chris Sante said the swim area can be a pilot program to see how things go for a year.
“There’s arguments about the beach. We’re simply talking about where boats can anchor,” he said. “And they keep saying people can’t drive boats. Well, unfortunately, you can buy a boat and not have a license.”
Those who violate the ordinance and operate a vessel within the swim zone could get a boating citation and be fined $250 or any other amount authorized by state law.
Councilman Jim Mooney said the ordinance is all about life safety.
“I do not want (Fire) Chief (Terry) Abel’s crew to go down there one day and have to take somebody out of there because somebody started their boat with someone standing behind it. I’ve lost a friend to that exact scenario.”