Islamorada wants to hear from residents after Memorial Day mess created by beach partiers

Trash is strewn about the mangroves at Indian Key Fill in Islamorada following the three-day Memorial Day weekend. Local residents and officials want the state to find ways to curb partying in the area.
Trash is strewn about the mangroves at Indian Key Fill in Islamorada following the three-day Memorial Day weekend. Local residents and officials want the state to find ways to curb partying in the area.

State, county and local Florida Keys officials are meeting next week to discuss measures to curb partying and littering at a stretch of roadside beach in Islamorada that is popular with mostly out-of-town revelers.

The approximately two-mile area known as Indian Key Fill is often packed, especially on busy holiday weekends like Memorial Day and Labor Day, and locals are left to clean up the mess when it’s all over. Following this Memorial Day weekend, photos spread on social media showing garbage strewn about the mangroves, dead fish left whole on the beach, bags of litter hanging from trees and mangrove branches, and even sacks full of human waste left on the beach.

“The general public and the environment are clashing, and the environment is taking a beating,” said Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay. “The two aren’t coexisting because there is no management plan.”

The area also gets congested with vehicle traffic, which not only leads to accidents, it also creates backups for locals and drivers trying to make their way down to the Lower Keys and Key West or trying to head back to the mainland.

Ramsay wants the entire zone, from mile marker 77.5 to mile marker 80, to be no passing and have a 45 mph speed limit, down from 50 mph now. The majority of the crashes there happen because people stop their cars unexpectedly and get hit from behind. That’s what happened to a group of four Spanish tourists in March 2018, who were killed when a truck hit the back of their rental car and pushed it into oncoming traffic.

The speed limit at the time was 55 mph, and Ramsay was able to lobby the Florida Department of Transportation to lower it to 50, although he wanted 45.

“It’s a beautiful, scenic area, and people are looking at the ocean and not the traffic in front of them,” he said. “But, there are no side streets, no restaurants, no traffic lights. Nobody would expect traffic to stop in such an open area.”

One of the main issues getting in the way of any real progress, particularly with the partying and littering, is ownership of the land. FDOT and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection own the land, even though it’s located in the middle of the Village of Islamorada. Village staff is often tasked with cleaning up the mess after party weekends, but can do little to force people to pick up after themselves.

A trash bag hangs from a mangrove branch at Indian Key Fill in Islamorada on Memorial Day, May 27, 2019. Wall of Shame - Florida Keys Visitors Facebook page

Similarly, Ramsay said his department does not have the manpower to have a permanent presence at the fill, especially on busy weekends when his deputies are needed throughout the 120-mile-long island chain.

“We just can’t be there all the time,” he said.

That’s why several village council members said during a May 30 meeting that they are in favor of Islamorada leasing the land from the state. But, it’s unlikely FDOT would go that route if the state leased the land to Islamorada and the village fenced it off and cut off public access.

FDOT spokeswoman Ivette Ruiz-Paz would not comment if that is an option the agency is considering.

“FDOT is currently working with the Village of Islamorada on the issue and will be attending a meeting to further discuss options in the near future,” she said. “At this moment, nothing has been finalized.”

Islamorada Councilman Ken Davis said an ordinance needs to be passed “limiting what they can and cannot do.”

“The consensus seems to be limit the number of people with paid parking and close weekend monitoring,” he said.

FDOT had a proposed $1.2 million plan it crafted in 2014, and was considering up until 2016, which included building limited parking spaces, not allowing overnight parking and camping, landscape buffers, boat ramp improvements and other ways to reduce the number of visitors. The plan went nowhere.

The Islamorada Village Council is holding a public meeting at 5:30 p.m. June 18 at Founders Park, mile marker 87, “to continue discussions and identify options for how to address the often-chaotic conditions, damage to the mangroves and shoreline, and the enormous amounts of trash left behind by visitors to the Fills on weekends and holidays,” the village stated in a meeting announcement Monday.

The meeting’s purpose is to gather public input in advance of a meeting Ramsay is scheduled to have with FDOT officials and Islamorada staff at the sheriff’s office substation on 50 High Point Road, from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. Friday, June 21. People who can’t attend the meeting can email questions or comments to clerk@islamorada.fl.us, and the June 18 meeting is scheduled to be webcast at www.islamorada.fl.us.