Village orders halt to farmers markets, citing health and public safety concerns

Market organizer disagrees with move

Vegetables and fruit are among the products found at the local farmers market at MM 80.9 in Islamorada. CONTRIBUTED

Several events deemed as flea markets by the village of Islamorada were recently told to cease immediately due to an ongoing coronavirus pandemic and no issuance of temporary use permits at this time. 

What constitutes a flea market and farmers market, however, have organizers and the village going back and forth.  

Michael Anzalone and Natalie Wheeler are owners of commercial property, known as the Galleria Shopping Center at MM 80.9, oceanside. It’s an area that usually sees some 30 vendors every Sunday to sell their products. Their farmers market is put on in conjunction with the Florida Keys Farmers Market, which has been operating for the past four years at MM 81, and organizer Andrea Segovia.

Just recently, however, Anzalone and Wheeler received a letter from the village’s code compliance department stating that their Sunday market had to cease immediately. The reason? Per the village’s development services director, Ty Harris, events such as theirs were operating as a flea market or sidewalk sales — not a farmers market. Flea markets require temporary use permits to operate, as opposed to farmers markets, which don’t have a requirement since they’re allowed in highway-commercial zones. 

The market at Island Home Garden Center at MM 88.7 was also told to cease immediately.

A number of complaints from the general public were also sent to the village regarding insufficient parking, the village said, leading to vehicles on bike paths and on private property, including a bank parking lot across the street. 

Communication from the village to the public on Feb. 18 stated that flea markets aren’t currently permitted in Islamorada, as temporary use permits required for such events aren’t being issued. That’s due to a COVID-19 measure the village council unanimously agreed on during its first meeting together in November that put a hold on temporary use permits for events for the time being. Council members are set to discuss the matter in April.

Not only did the restriction include festivals at Founders Park, but also events and happenings outside the park. It affected art walks every third Thursday of the month on Morada Way, which last month had scaled down their event to 10-15 artists with their tents spaced apart. The Morada Way Arts & Cultural District even had hand sanitizer at each booth and had volunteers roaming around giving people masks.

Art walk took place last week, but there were no tents. Only brick and mortars galleries, businesses, restaurants and the brewery were open. 

It also affected full moon parties at Morada Bay, the annual Baygrass Bluegrass festival and the largest event in the Upper Keys, the annual Gigantic Nautical Flea Market. 

The village is characterizing markets such as the one Anzalone, Wheeler and Segovia run as a flea market, as they say farmers markets strictly sell locally grown farm products — not clothes, artwork and food. While village code and state statute doesn’t specifically define a farmer’s market, there is a section of Florida’s statute (570.02) related to the department of agriculture and consumer service that defines agriculture. Harris said he tried to keep the issue to the first layer —  events weren’t running as farmers markets. That propelled him to examine the statute.

Based on what they define as agriculture, we came up with what we thought as an appropriate farmer’s market,” Harris said. “We’re talking dairy, livestock, forms of farm product for purposes of market and promotion activities. 

“We got asked about a guy selling fish. We said, ‘yes, he’s good,’” he continued. “Can he come and cook the fish? ‘No.’  We’ve tried to stretch it as far as we can stretch it and stay within definition of agriculture.”

Harris added that temporary use permits give a layer of protection to the village and property owner, and they require a site plan, parking plan in order to move people from the parking area to the event and inspections to ensure cooking equipment isn’t near anything combustible or too close to a nearby tent. 

Several conversations were had between council members and Harris over the issue. Harris said talks have been “all over place.”

“Our concern is we’re playing this favorite that we’re giving these guys a path to have an event, whereas we told the largest event we ever had which we’re not having — the Gigantic Nautical Flea Market — that they couldn’t do it. It becomes a perception of fairness.”

Segovia said it’s safer to shop outside at a farmers market than it is to shop in grocery store. She also said there’s a difference between a flea market, which sells secondary items, and a farmers market, which sells handcrafted goods.

Eighty percent of our vendors have locally handmade goods, and that’s what the farmer’s market is all about,” she said. 

Councilman Mark Gregg is a regular patron of market events in the village. He’s also allowed farmer’s markets on his property in north Florida for several years. Gregg says while jewelry and art work are more in line with an art show or arts and crafts festival, they go hand-in-hand with a farmer’s market. But such events need to go through an application process and need regulation, he said. 

“We need to have a discussion on how to do that,” he said. “And we need a specific definition of what is a farmers market, and maybe add one too for what is an art show or art festival. This is a good opportunity to explore and expand things that we want to have as part of the community. 

“This isn’t an opportunity to clamp down and give people a hard time,” he continued. “And we don’t want to be painted as anti-farmers market. We’ve got a real good opportunity to sit down and see where we want to go so it’s fair, safe and fun for everybody.”

Anzalone maintains that his event every Sunday is a farmers market, and referenced similar events labeled as farmers markets in Big Pine Key, Key West and Marathon that are going on. 

“They are all called farmers markets with the same vendors,” he said. “They sell everything from jewelry and produce, and they all go to the other markets.”

The market event at MM 80.9 at 81 was held Feb. 21 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., but it saw fewer vendors between fears of confrontation and being shut down. Having heard that the village might close down the event with assistance from sheriff’s deputies, Councilman Henry Rosenthal said he made efforts to prevent that from happening and discuss the matter and allow for public comment at the meeting Thursday, Feb. 25. 

“I talked to each one individually, but didn’t ask to vote one way or another,” Rosenthal said. “I didn’t know their position. If they did agree with me, fine, if they didn’t agree, that’s OK too. I told them to contact Ty so he knew if there was support there.

“I’m not taking a position on this. I promised time to air everyone’s positions publicly, which they had not had the opportunity,” Rosenthal said. “The main objective is to provide an opportunity to have the public’s voice involved before any action is taken one way or another.”

Anzalone said it was a banner day, between all the publicity it’s been getting via Facebook and on where there’s a petition calling for equal opportunities as big box stores. More than 1,200 have signed it. 

“I just feel that it’s helping the community,” Anzalone said. “And it’s helping vendors like a single mom with her two little kids who make smoothies.”

Harris said village staff won’t be writing up any citations as they await direction from the village council, which is set to meet Feb. 25 at 5:30 p.m. Mayor Buddy Pinder told the Weekly council will ask staff to come with a definition for a farmers market. 

“We gotta have some guidelines here,” Pinder said.

Jim McCarthy is one of the many 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 4-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, hockey, mixed martial arts and golf. He also enjoys time with family and his new baby boy, Lucas, who arrived Oct. 4, 2022.