Unchecked government agencies have been known to play hardball and in the Florida Keys some business owners and residents are complaining over what they consider the strongarm tactics of the Florida Department of Transportationcurrently centered in Islamorada.
For decades, roadside businesses along U.S. 1 have used the front of their properties for parking and to display signs and their wares. A little over a year ago, FDOT officials began showing up at establishments in Key Largo saying things like, “You know that parking lot you've been using since 1972? It’s ours. Pay up, or get out.”
Businesses owners like Harriette Mattson of Harriette’s Restaurant in Key Largo took a particularly hard beating. FDOT insisted her parking lot, which she used since 1982, belonged to the state. After months of back and forth — tearing up Mattson's parking lot, only to repave it weeks later — FDOT ended up mandating Mattson put in a half-roundabout driveway that only serves to confuse customers.
When FDOT was done with its pointless exercise of wielding power just because it could with Mattson, the agency moved on to target businesses on the bayside of the highway from mile marker 98 to 107. These property and business owners, too, were told by FDOT that land they thought was theirs, in many instances for generations, is state right-of-way. Businesses had two options — abandon the land, giving up precious parking and signage space, or work out a lease agreement with FDOT.
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Tanya Cleary, who owns several properties in FDOT’s crosshairs, isn’t sure, either, and she took FDOT to court. The agency recently lost a bid to have the case thrown out. Cleary continues to recruit other business and landowners to join the lawsuit.
Her hired surveyor found a document from 1914 showing that the land FDOT says it owns is a 20-foot-wide strip that lies on what was once a public road that ran along the former Florida East Coast Railway.
So far, neither the county nor the state nor any private party has found documentation the road was ever deeded to the state.
The county has been trying to stay out of the fray, and publicly agrees that FDOT owns the land. County attorneys cite a 1972 ordinance adopted by the then-Monroe County Commission that approved the transfer of jurisdiction of certain county land, including the strip in question, to the state.
But Martinez rightly points out that there is no paperwork showing that ever happened.
While FDOT defends itself in court, it dispatched more enforcers to tell businesses they don't own the land they once thought was theirs.
Now they're in Islamorada confronting very small business owners that make the Keys operate.
Cleary's ongoing case against FDOT shows the agency's claims to the land it wants aren't cut and dry. But the bigger question we've asked since FDOT began skirmishing with Keys businesses is why now?
We've never received a clear answer. What is clear is FDOT obviously feels it knows what's best for the Keys.
FDOT is good at letting the public know about things like lane closures and other delays we might experience from construction. But the agency gets a failing grade on gathering input before it makes decisions that deeply impact Keys people and businesses.
This editorial first appeared in the Florida Keys Keynoter, a McClatchy newspaper.