Environment

This Keys beach is so popular that it’s suffering. And Islamorada runs it at a loss

The state of Florida owns a popular stretch of roadside beach in Islamorada that many locals and officials feel is too popular among weekend tourists who often leave it trashed and cause traffic backups along U.S. 1.

But the state does not maintain the Indian Key Fill. The Village of Islamorada does, and it costs the four-island municipality more than $450,000 a year to mow the lawn, trim the trees and clean up after the weekenders, according to a “rough estimate” released this week by Islamorada’s Public Works department.

In return, the Florida Department of Transportation provides the village a stipend of around $54,000 a year.

“We’re maintaining state property at a $350,000 loss,” Islamorada Village Councilman Ken Davis said Thursday. “That’s something we need to bring to the table.”

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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. Wall of Shame - Florida Keys Visitors Facebook page

The fills, which run from mile marker 77.5 to mile marker 80, are packed with cars and tourists, mostly “day trippers” from the mainland,” on weekends, especially busy weekends like Memorial Day and Labor Day. But through a combination of not enough trash cans and people who don’t use them, as well as the lack of public restroom facilities, come Monday morning, the fills are littered with food, trash, grills, mattresses, dead fish and even bags of human waste.

The fills have been an issue for more than 20 years, but the situation became worse in the years since Monroe County closed the so-called “Jet Ski beach” 40 miles to the north on Card Sound Road over similar problems with littering.

The fills are also where many people launch their boats, which also contributes to the congestion there. The congestion has contributed to some recent bad car crashes, including one in March 2018 that killed four tourists visiting from Spain whose car was rear ended by a truck as they waited to make a left turn to the beach. They were pushed into oncoming traffic and hit head-on by a recreational vehicle.

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Two dead grunts lie on the ground at Indian Key Fill in Islamorada on Memorial Day, May 27, 2019. Wall of Shame - Florida Keys Visitors Facebook page

The stretch of U.S. 1 is one of the first places drivers get a view of the ocean and bay on either side of the highway, and they’re often paying more attention to the scenery than the cars in front of them.

Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay lobbied FDOT to lower the speed limit along the fills from 55 mph to 45 mph. FDOT agreed to lower it to 50 mph, but Ramsay wants the state to do more to make the area safer for drivers.

“My concerns about Indian Key Fill have not abated,” Ramsay said in a statement on June 3, announcing his request to meet again with FDOT.

The Village of Islamorada is having a meeting on Tuesday, June 18, to hear from the public ideas on what can be done to better maintain the area. Options discussed so far include letting the village lease the land from FDOT and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and more extreme measures like fencing the area off and blocking it off from the public.

However, only the state can close the fills, and has so far been unwilling to do it.

“We can’t close them. Only the state of Florida can close them, so that’s not an option,” Davis said.

He favors leasing the land so the village can invoke its ordinances on littering and enact new ordinances on overnight camping, which he said would greatly reduce the littering issues.

“The days of people pitching tents and camping out at the fills are over,” he said.

However, FDOT is tight lipped about what it will consider in negotiations with the village. And, agency spokeswoman Ivette Ruiz-Paz said FDOT is not considering allowing the village to lease the fills, when she was asked specifically about that option.

“The information you provided is not accurate,” Ruiz-Paz wrote in an email this week. “FDOT is currently working with the Village of Islamorada on this issue and will be attending a meeting to further discuss options in the near future. At this moment, nothing has been finalized.”

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