Orange cones remain positioned on the Fills as part of a temporary control measure the village of Islamorada implemented upon securing state approval to manage the three small islands connecting Upper and Lower Matecumbe Keys. 

With the village council’s approval of an engineering firm, another step was recently taken toward implementing long-term maintenance solutions to curb safety issues and chaos that once plagued the area.

In a 5-0 vote during a March 18 meeting, village council members approved CPH Inc. to assist the village in creating a master plan for property that’s owned by the Florida Department of Transportation and state Department of Environmental Protection. It’s currently subleased to the village to manage and maintain per a pair of five-year agreements with the state in 2019 for the Indian Key boat ramp, owned by DEP, and property on the Fills owned by FDOT. 

While authorized to control parking and access, the village is also required to submit a management plan for each agency’s approval. A request for proposals for an engineering firm went out in January with three responses. An evaluation committee composed of the acting village manager, public works director, assistant to public works director and environmental resources manager recommended CPH Inc. at a cost proposal of $55,000. 

Cars park at the Fills in Islamorada on March 22. DAVID GROSS/Contributed

Last July, the former village council approved installing an estimated $322,000 cable barrier system to delineate parking areas while protecting grassy areas to keep vehicles from parking on the Overseas Highway. A preliminary Fills master plan was also created with a list of 14 elements, such as information signs and a permanent boat ramp, additional landscaping and bathrooms, for future consideration by FDOT.

An adopted fiscal year 2020-21 budget for the capital projects fund included $350,000 for Fills master plan engineering and construction costs. 

Councilman David Webb’s concerns surrounding the Fills were relayed to the dais and staff before approval. He said the area doesn’t provide access as a park should. In addition, he noted that the boat ramp on the Fills “isn’t really a boat ramp.” Webb went on to ask A.J. Engelmeyer, public works director, if the resolution before the dais would memorialize the 14 items listed within the preliminary plan. Engelmeyer said the proposed elements can be modified at the council’s discretion. 

“The main key points (to the plan) were the delineated parking and the cable barrier,” Engelmeyer said. “This is purely approval to work with the engineer to create a master plan.”

Webb said he would like the council to review the list of items the former council proposed in the Fills management plan. He also noted that he’d like to revisit FDOT’s original plan of spending just north of $1 million to fence the Fills. 

“It’s incredibly unacceptable, to me, to have a ‘make-believe park’ on a federal highway with high speeds, people trying to pass on the bridge, people trying to pull boats down there and pull on the side of the road on a tiny little parking space and have our village employees tasked with policing and cleaning up the incredible mess that’s left behind,” he said. “I don’t think it’s suitable geographically for a real park. There’s a very strong argument to have some kind of access at some points that we should look at.”

Acting Village Manager Maria Bassett said gaining better management of the Fills and the visitors who frequent the area is the whole point behind creating a master plan. Bassett said the engineering firm will look to have two meetings with the council members to discuss the plan. 

“We’re just trying to have staff better manage the area, and this is the first step in that direction,” she said. 

Councilman Mark Gregg said the idea is to keep activities on the Fills simple, safe and functional. 

Barricades and cones remain on the Fills in Islamorada. DAVID GROSS/Keys Weekly

“It’s not a park. It’s a right of way,” he said. “Safety is a concern.” 

Construction crews recently completed restoration and strengthening of the shoreline along the Fills from damage during Hurricane Irma in 2017. The state-funded project that’s restored the shoreline up and down the Keys also restored the sea wall at the Fills.

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Jim McCarthy is a Western New Yorkers who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 3-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. Jim is a sports fanatic who loves to watch football, mixed martial arts and golf. He loves to hit the links and play some softball with his Make A Play team. He also enjoys time with family and his new baby boy, Lucas, who arrived Oct. 4, 2022.