Is there a lovelier section of the Overseas Highway than driving across the Fills between Upper and Lower Matecumbe? Can we get rid of the cones, tents and canopies, end the littering and create a no-passing zone?
Drone photograph by Jim Szabo, of San Cap Aerial taken while visiting the Keys in 2017
What we experience now is day trippers moving in, especially on summer weekends, spending the day, with no restroom facilities, playing loud music, tearing up the sea grass and leaving their litter behind when they leave.
The azure seas of the ocean and Florida Bay glimmer on both sides of the Fills. Nowhere are sunrises and sunsets more spectacular. This two-and-a-half mile stretch is a gem that needs to be protected. For more than a decade, it has been a popular outdoor play area for day trippers from all over South Florida. Year after year the crowds grow, and the litter left behind has become a monumental problem. Village taxpayers pay to clean up others' messes. Orange cones designating parking areas are unsightly.
After struggling for years with this issue, in June of 2020, the Village signed a lease with the Florida Department of Transportation, taking over control of the Fills, with limitations.
There are expenses that Islamorada taxpayers pay for an area they rarely use. In the 2020 – 2021 budget, the projected cost for a Public Works park attendant is almost $50,000. The projected cost of the Fills Master Plan, engineering & initial construction is $350,000. The Village Public Works Department has three employees responsible for litter removal, at a cost of $147,969 per year. What percentage of the litter is generated at the Fills?
Is a lovely park with costly amenities justifiable?
Everyone here loves the drive across the Fill… no question. How much should Islamorada taxpayers take on in capital costs and maintenance to provide a park predominantly used by day trippers who have historically abused the once enchanting environment? Hasn’t Florida provided ample state parks in the Florida Keys for our visitors?
In 2014, FDOT presented its master plan for improvements and restricted parking at the Fills, to be planned, engineered and constructed without Islamorada tax dollars.
Perhaps a status report is in order
Public Works has created a wish list for the Fill to be the basis of a Master Plan, to be developed by an engineer.
The wish list was presented by Public Works Director, A. J. Engelmeyer, to council at the July 30, 2020 Council meeting:
According to the minutes of the July 2020 meeting, Mr. Engelmeyer stated an engineer would create the master plan draft and it would be submitted to FDOT for its review. Once approved, the Village could move forward with the projects noting the barrier was the first project the Village would move forward with so as to remove the existing pylons and barriers.
Councilman Chris Sante recommended removing items from the list that were “pie-in-the-sky.” Mr. Engelmeyer stated FDOT had recommended asking for everything the Village could possibly want.
How could the Village (that is, us: the taxpayers, residents, voters) possibly want bathrooms at all seven planned parking locations, pedestrian underpasses under bridges, and installed charcoal grills to accommodate the very people who have been so destructive, littering the most beautiful section of our community?
No items were removed from the wish list at the July 30, 2020 Council meeting. No vote was taken in July. No further progress has been publicly announced since this list was presented at the July council meeting.
January 2021 Update
But wait! On January 5, 2021 a Request for Proposals (RFP) went out to solicit sealed proposals from qualified consultants to create a Master Plan for the area known as “The Fills.” Responses were to be received by February 11, 2021. The RFP is complex. Is this just a formality? Has the qualified consultant already been singled out?
And now, damage at the boat ramp
Memo from the Village on February 23, 2021:
Indian Key Boat Ramp Remains Closed at least through the End of the Summer to Repair Damage
The boat ramp at Indian Key Fill, approximately MM 78.5 along the area known as the Fills, was damaged early in February while a contractor was putting equipment into the water. The hard pack surface was disturbed at the ramp entrance on the shoreline and extending into the water. Following an evaluation of the damage, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) determined that restoration must be completed before the area can be reopened to the public.
The restoration is the responsibility of the contractor that created the damage. The contractor is working with an environmental consulting group to create the necessary restoration plan. The plan now requires approval and permitting from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and will also require permitting with the Army Corps of Engineers and authorization through the National Marine Sanctuary. The contractor is coordinating closely with FDEP and the Village during this process.
It is estimated that the permitting process and restoration work will take months to complete and it is possible that it could take until the end of the year. The ramp and parking area are completely closed to the public until the restoration project is completed.
Improvements are not allowed to be incorporated into the restoration plan. Due to regulations in place for shoreline damage, the requirements are that the area must be restored to its previous condition, not improved. Any improvements would require separate design and permitting only after the restoration project is complete.
Illegal parking fines or a fence at the Fills?
Wouldn’t a few “no parking signs” and enforcement be more cost effective than the planned fence? At the January 2021 Council meeting, an ordinance was presented to increase the illegal parking fine within the Village from $32 to $100. The council voted to further increase the fine to $200, not as an improved revenue source, but as a deterrent. Won’t that be deterrent enough to allow the community to save hundreds of thousands of dollars for construction of fencing on this beautiful stretch?
Months have passed since the wish list was presented on July 30, 2020. During the summer months of 2020 with pandemic issues galore, the Fills were closed during holiday weekends and the parking was severely restricted at other times. But, 2021 is here and summer is just around the corner.
The RFP provided a deadline for a master plan:
“Prepare a Final Master Plan report of the plan to be presented to the Village Council for review and approval at the Village Council regular meeting on or before May 31, 2021.”
Once we have the master plan approved by Council, it will be presented to FDOT for its review and approval. Some items in the Master Plan may be rejected by FDOT, so negotiations may be necessary before implementation of improvements in the plan.
The lease with FDOT for most of the Fills is a five-year lease from 9/11/2019 to 9/10/2024 with one optional five-year extension.
The lease for the boat ramp area with FDEP is a five-year lease from 6/16/2020 to 6/15/2025 with two optional five-year extensions.
During the fourth quarter of 2020, FDOT has made significant repairs to the shoreline placing rocks and boulders at many of the most popular picnic, fishing and swimming locations along the Fill.
On a weekday in January 2020 with no visitors in sight, the improvements looked wonderful and will help prevent erosion.
We have an all new Village Council now. Here is what they said in September 2020 when asked if they were satisfied with the progress at the Fills and what they’d expect to see by Memorial Day 2021:
"Yes I’m satisfied with progress. We need paved parking, parking meters (revenue to pay to clean and run the fills) and then re-visit what is needed at that point. By Memorial Day 2021, I’d like to see paved parking with parking meters and someone to manage the usage of the area."
"It’s much improved but more could be done. My preference would be to limit use to locals with a paid-for parking pass, mainly local guides who launch boats for charter. I would like to see uses limited to resting, and walking, without food preparation, swimming, fishing, or other uses that generate trash. It should be re-landscaped with native vegetation, and all erosion damage should be repaired by FDOT to prevent runoff. That would be a good start.
By Memorial Day 2021, I would hope the erosion problem will be fixed to stop the [polluting] runoff. I would like to see landscaping in place. I would like the Fills to be closed for the holiday and all holidays and high-demand periods."
"Glad the Village is addressing it at long last, but I am not satisfied with the direction. Why should [Islamorada] residents provide a beautiful scenic park for [non-village] day trippers with [our] tax dollars?
By Memorial Day 2021: We should work with FDOT, FWC, FDEP and any other agencies to reduce the Village costs to taxpayers for this."
"NO! I don’t think Islamorada should take on this obligation for expensive improvements and ongoing maintenance. In 2014, FDOT submitted a detailed plan for improvements and limited parking and use of the Fills – at FDOT expense. I do not understand why this should now be our responsibility.
Fills by Memorial Day 2021: Extremely limited paid parking, no other uses encouraged."
"The current course charted by council should be revisited. It appears that nearly $500,000.00 has been budgeted for 2021 to build substantial infrastructure at the Fills. Even if that is the path eventually chosen, the cost should be primarily borne by the land owner, the state. I support investigating whether the Fills could be incorporated into an existing protected area which might force the state to restrict access.
Fills by Memorial Day 2021: Depends upon the other elected council members willingness to take another path. I don't believe creating an environment similar to Anne's Beach is advisable or workable at the Fills."