The Florida Department of Transportation has moved its right-of-way reclaiming campaign to Islamorada.
The agency is telling businesses that have used property between their store fronts and U.S. 1 for generations that most of that land in fact belongs to the state. DOT embarked on a similar effort in Key Largo that resulted in an ongoing lawsuit filed against the agency by area business owners.
Bill Ismer owns Bill's Custom Auto Repair on the ocean side of U.S. 1 at mile marker 82.7. He regularly has cars he's repairing parked on what DOT now says is its land. Ismer also displays tiki wood art he sells on the strip of land. A sign on what DOT now calls its right of way used to be a Texaco sign from when the property was a gas station in the 1950s.
A representative with a DOT-contracted company, ICA, told Ismer last week that he has until Friday to move everything off the right of way. DOT considers everything within 50 feet from the center of U.S. 1 its land.
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The agency told Mike Baker, owner of the Shell Shack at mile marker 83, the same thing last week. The end of his property is now his fence but until last week, Baker used to display his wares right up to the edge of the highway.
"I've had stuff right outside my fence for 40 to 50 years," Baker said.
Ivette Ruiz-Paz, a spokeswoman for DOT, said the agency has increased enforcement in Islamorada because it recently completed road construction in the village.
"We are required to ensure that there is no commercial use of the FDOT right of way and have always conducted field reviews," Ruiz-Paz said.
If signs and other items are not removed from the disputed land, DOT confiscates them and takes them to its Marathon operations center.
"There is no violation fee," Ruiz-Paz said. "They must sign a form that they have been a copy of the Florida statute [regarding rights of way] and they understand it is illegal to place signs or merchandise in the right of way."
Baker said the policy is killing his business.
"All they're doing is trying to hurt the small business people," he said. "You're going to lose 50 percent of your business if you can't display your merchandise."
Earlier this month, DOT lost a motion to dismiss the Key Largo business and landowners' lawsuit filed in February. Led by landowner Tanya Cleary, the plaintiffs want DOT to either vacate the disputed property or financially reimburse the owners for the decades they've maintained the land.
The property DOT wants from Cleary and several other businesses along U.S. 1 at mile marker 107 to mile marker 98 is a 20-foot wide strip of land that was built as a public road on what is known as the Sunset Cove Subdivision parcel. The road ran along the tracks of the former Florida East Coast Railway.
Cleary's attorneys and her surveyor, Eddie Martinez, say the road was designated for public use and no documents exist showing it was ever deeded over to the state.
"They're just trying to extract money through intimidation and harassment," Cleary said.
The plaintiffs have a Facebook page, www.facebook.com/stopfdot, and a Go Fund Me account, www.gofundme.com/stopfdot, aimed at raising money to help pay for the lawsuit.
"Right now, anyone who donates $10 or more will be automatically entered to win a free week's stay at Dream Bay Resort," Cleary said. The drawing will be held July 31.