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?
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 public has been crystal clear. The vast majority of us do not want activity along both sides the two and a half mile stretch of US 1 affectionately called the Fills. No parking, swimming, partying, pooping, cutting the mangroves or crushing seagrass beds. So, the question then becomes: How do we accomplish that.
A simple, straightforward, and doable plan.
Pete, Mark, Buddy, and David’s plan.
After wasting more than $55,000 with a consultant’s plan to turn the Fills into a real-deal destination spot along our environmentally sensitive American Scenic Highway, the public roared back: “Not no, but heck no!”
So, in June 2022, a new, ill-advised plan with no cost estimates came forward under Mayor Pete Bacheler’s leadership that includes:
With the introduction of legal parking with time limits and other activities in several areas along the Fills, “No Swimming,” “No Picnics,” “No Cutting Mangroves,” and “No Urination or Defecation” signs will need to be installed and a program established for handling those who disregard the signage. Garbage cans are a must. The lack of bathrooms will need to be addressed.
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 well over 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. REVIEW FDOT LEASE
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. REVIEW FDOT PLAN 2O14
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. VIEW WISH LIST
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 July30, 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. REVIEW MINUTES FROM 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?
VIEW RFP | AMENDMENT ONE: FDOT LEASE | FDEP LEASE FOR BOAT RAMP AREA
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.
March 8th Update MUTILATION OF THE FILLS
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 each had 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:
Moving forward with Master Plan
A Fills Wish List of 14 features was created to develop the Master Plan of possible amenities that could be built on the Fill to turn it in to a public park – primarily paid for by Islamorada taxpayers to be enjoyed by the very people who have created havoc on the Fills.
The Council has acknowledged that many of the features will never be implemented. But, that having a plan is the only way to satisfy the terms of the lease.
When asked by council at its April 8, 2021 meeting when the staff expected the critical parts of the Master Plan could be implemented, following the creation of the plan and approval by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), Maria Bassett, Acting Village Manager, indicated she thought it would be a year.
That would mean another summer of weekend traffic and trash. Surely, there is a way that we could do better.
The lease with FDOT does not specifically require a Master Plan. The lease says that any improvements must be approved in writing by the District Six Secretary.
Perhaps a simple letter to FDOT requesting the right to post “No Parking” signs to officially eliminate parking on the existing swales would work. With an additional request for permission to have paid parking at the designated parking areas at existing driveway aprons, we could potentially solve the majority of the issues at the Fills.
Having already increased the penalty for parking illegally in the Village to $200, there may be no need to install a barrier.
Using an online parking app, as previously discussed, would generate revenue at the Fills and at Anne’s Beach to reduce cleanup costs to local taxpayers.