Key Biscayne council members have tentatively agreed to ban motor-powered boats from the Mashta Flats, a fragile ecosystem near the island village — and a popular party spot where large group of boats gather in what authorities consider dangerously crowded groups.
During Tuesday's meeting, council members Theodore Holloway, Michael Kelly, Mayra Pena-Lindsay, Edward London, James Taintor, Mayor Frank Caplan and Vice Mayor Michael Davey unanimously approved the first reading of an ordinance to make it a motor-free zone.
For the item to become law, council members must pass the second reading of the ordinance during their next meeting, on June 10.
Key Biscayne shares jurisdiction with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Miami-Dade County on the shallow sandbar area, with 12 acres falling under the village's control and 47 acres under the FWC. It's known to be a popular party-spot for boaters on weekends and on holidays, but over the last couple of years there have been three deaths there, two life-changing injuries, 15 reported boat accidents and 156 citations issued at the flats.
Damage to the seagrass and marine life by boats' propellers has also taken a devastating toll underneath the water's surface. This new law would allow kayaks, paddle-boards, swimmers, snorkelers and sailboats on the flats but would prohibit vessels that depend on motors to operate from being allowed there.
“We're really trying to protect motor boaters from running aground on the flats,” London said.
On May 4, 23-year-old Ernesto Hernandez was killed by boat propellers as he assisted in trying to help push a four-motor power boat operated by Miami radio personality, DJ Laz.
Police Chief Charles Press urged the council to pass the ordinance.
“It was so insane at the sandbar over Memorial Day weekend that the boats couldn't get out of the way from each other,” Press said. “We were overwhelmed with the amount of boats that were there. There were calls that we could not get to.”
There are currently no laws prohibiting party boats or motorized vessels from being on the flats.
“What you decide tonight with the ordinance and the resolution are huge,” Press said.
Pena-Lindsay said the new law was needed.
“Key Biscayne is a boating community,” she said. “Every council member here owns or has owned a boat but what we have here is a life-saving situation and we have to address it. People are dying out there.”
If the ordinance passes on second reading, it will provide a stronger backing when Key Biscayne's lobbyist, police chief, village attorney, a council member, and the mayor to go before the FWC's commission meeting on June 17 in Fort Myers to propose that the rest of the flats outside of the key's jurisdiction exclude motor-dependent vessels and “be consistent with the resolution allowing for sailboats and vessels propelled by oar,” to be allowed on the flats, Caplan said.
The council unanimously passed a resolution on Tuesday “urging the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission to adopt an emergency rule” or moratorium, to make the Mashta Flats that would designate its share of the flats as a motor-free zone as well.
The Florida Constitution authorizes the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to enact rules and regulations regarding the state's fish and wildlife resources.
Since the FWC is responsible for the majority of the Mashta Flats, there is a provision in the law that would allow the village to lease the 47 acres from the state so that they could have control of the entire area of the flats if the FWC won't take action to make the flats safer.
“We have to identify it as a possibility and we need to discuss it,” Caplan said.