Florida Keys demand action on chronic trashing of state-owned beach

Florida Keys leaders and residents are fed up with weekend tourists littering a popular, state-owned roadside beach in Islamorada — and they’re demanding action.

During a meeting on Tuesday to gather ideas on limiting public use of the two-mile Indian Key Fill, solutions to keep weekenders and day-trippers away included:

Leasing the land so it could be locally managed

Closing it off altogether

Hoping an endangered migratory bird would nest there so the federal government would shut it down.

“Good lord, I hope there’s a little bird down there that’s on the endangered species list,” said Islamorada Village Councilwoman Cheryl Meads. “What a game changer that would be. Somebody release a little bird down there.”

Longtime residents say problems with mainland revelers, picnickers and campers at Indian Key Fill, which is actually man-made land that was built between Lower and Upper Matecumbe keys for Henry Flagler’s railroad, go back decades. But the number of people going there has grown significantly, especially after Monroe County closed a popular beach on Card Sound Road in 2014.

“It was just as disgusting in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s as it is today,” Councilman Jim Mooney said at the meeting. “It’s just the numbers are exponentially higher.”

The purpose of the meeting was to gather public input ahead of a meeting scheduled for Friday that is expected to include Islamorada Mayor Deb Gillis, Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay and representatives of the Florida Department of Transportation, which owns the fill.

So many people showed up at the mile marker 87 village hall at Founders Park that bleachers and a television monitor were set up outside so people could watch the meeting. About 10 people spoke, most saying they want to cap the amount of people at the fill and the amount of time they spend there.

They said weekend tourists leave food, beer and soda cans and bottles, diapers, grills and even human waste when they leave. Adding to locals’ burden, fill visitors don’t typically spend money at area hotels, stores and restaurants.

The hundreds of cars parked on either side of U.S. 1 also cause traffic delays and serious accidents, an issue for which Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay has urged FDOT to lower the speed limit in the area from 55 to 45 mph ever since four Spanish tourists were killed there in March 2018.

FDOT compromised at 50 mph, but Ramsay wants it lower, and for the entire area to be a no-passing zone.

But most of the people at the meeting railed more against the trash people leave behind, so much so that some called for the fill to be closed or at least made into a scenic overlook where people can only spend a few minutes.

“The people who come here on weekends have worn out their welcome,” said resident Sue Miller. “We need to find a way to make them behave or stay home.”

Fisherman, businessman and local conservationist John Timura held up plastic trash he found at the fill, noting that to birds, fish, marine mammals, turtles and other wildlife, it could look like food.

“Why is it OK for us to allow this to go into the water on our watch?” he said.

But, council members stressed to the residents that FDOT owns the land and has been reluctant to do anything over the years to manage it. The agency has been adamant that closing it to the public is not an option. Some local lawmakers want to lease it from FDOT so Islamorada can enforce its litter ordinances and enact more ordinances restricting parking and how long people can stay there.

Councilman Mike Forster said one thing FDOT needs to do right away is build parking spaces and cap the amount of cars that can park on either side of the highway along the fill.

“There has to be a carrying capacity for that property,” he said. “If it’s 30 cars, if it’s 50 cars, if it’s 60 cars, it’s over-density that’s creating angst among everybody.”

The village already spends close to $400,000 a year to maintain and clean up the fill, and is reimbursed only around $50,000 from the state, according to estimates released last week by Islamorada’s Public Works department.

“This is like taking care of your neighbor’s yard for free,” said Councilman Ken Davis.

However, Mooney and Meads cautioned against leasing and operating the fill, citing cost and liability.

“It’s a bad idea. If we lease the property, then we become liable for what happens there, from accidents, deaths, all kinds of things,” Meads said.

Mooney said a lease would end up costing the village millions of dollars a year and force the five-member council to raise property taxes.

“Be careful what you wish for as far as a lease goes. As soon as that side starts to crumble, and we own the lease, we’ve got to fix it,” he said. “And, I’m personally not interested in raising people’s taxes because we have to fix the fill.”

Davis countered that a lease could be negotiated with the state by Islamorada’s city manager and attorney to “benefit us and cost us minimal.”