The Florida Department of Transportation spent almost $10,000 building a curb last month to prevent people from parking in front of a popular Key Largo restaurant -- only to tear down the barrier this week following a backlash from area residents and business owners.
The curb in front of Harriette's Restaurant at mile marker 95.7 made the eatery's once-open parking lot into two small driveways. FDOT built the impediment because it is on a campaign throughout the Keys to reclaim state rights of way.
Harriette's owner Harriette Mattson knew her front parking lot belonged to the state since she opened her restaurant in the early 1980s. But it was used for parking since the 1970s, and FDOT did not seem interested in reclaiming it until 2012.
That's when the agency erected plastic delineators on seven parking spaces in front of the restaurant. That outraged many of Mattson's customers as well as fellow business owners. People began parking in the spaces despite the delineators, which were soon gone.
But in July, with one day's notice, FDOT sent a wrecking crew to tear up the parking lot and build a 1,810-square-foot curb and median to once and for all stop people from parking in front of the restaurant. That cost taxpayers $9,272, said FDOT spokeswoman Ivette Ruiz-Paz.
FDOT this week bulldozed the median after the Upper Keys community sprang to Mattson's defense. It included state Rep. Holly Raschein, who mediated negotiations between Mattson and FDOT officials.
"Harriette is a testament to what can happen when you reach out to my office," Raschein said.
As part of an agreement reached last week, Mattson will give up most of the parking in front of the restaurant, and FDOT will install a smaller, 512-square-foot median on the right of way.
Ruiz-Paz could not come up with how much money FDOT spent to tear down the larger median and how much it will cost to build the 512-square-foot barrier.
Mattson said last week she is happy FDOT is finally willing to meet her half way.
"They need to compromise, and we need to compromise," Mattson said. "If they're going to take away parking spaces, they have to give us something."
Gus Pego, secretary of FDOT’s District 6, which covers the Keys, said the right-of-way policy is aimed primarily at improving public safety. It is also part of a project to widen shoulders for hurricane evacuation and to make U.S. 1 safer for bicyclists.
FDOT refers to the work it's doing in front of Harriette's as "improvements." But to Mattson and other business owners along U.S. 1 who are facing similar action, the term is Orwellian to say the least, considering taking away parking could shut down their respective operations.
FDOT took back all the frontage between U.S. 1 and the D-Hooker Sports Bar and Grill in Key Largo at mile marker 102 on the bayside. Manager George Valdez said he was not aware the land belonged to FDOT, and the restaurant may go to court to fight the agency.
Valdez said the decision impacts signage and could ultimately put the restaurant out of business. He said actions against his business and Harriette's are harbingers of what's to come to the rest of the Keys.
"Wait until Islamorada sees what's coming their way," Valdez said.