Florida Keys

Day-trippers are trashing popular Keys beach. Keys officials demand that state do something

Indian Key Fill is an area in Islamorada where you can fish, swim, picnic, barbecue and launch your boat.

But local officials have been saying for decades that perhaps it’s a little too popular, particularly among day-trippers from the mainland, many of whom leave it trashed when they go back home, especially on busy weekends, like the recent Memorial Day holiday.

Hundreds of carloads of people celebrated the three-day weekend at the fill, leaving behind bottles, cans, cups, diapers, food containers, dead fish and even human waste. Many of those who bothered to pick up their trash left the bags behind, often hanging them from mangrove branches.

“I’ve been hearing the same stories over and over again, and I hope this time, it means something,” longtime resident Sue Miller said during a May 30 Islamorada Village Council meeting.

“I always thought that driving from Upper Matecumbe to Lower Matecumbe in the old days was the prettiest place in the Florida Keys, when you could look out and see Alligator Light and Indian Key on one side and Lignumvitae and a variety of other islands in the bay on the other side. And, everything was a beautiful blue green. And, now, when I drive there, I have tears in my eyes when I see the bags of trash hanging from the mangroves, and just an area that should be beautiful, but it isn’t.”

A trash bag hangs from a mangrove branch at Indian Key Fill in Islamorada on Memorial Day, May 27, 2019. Wall of Shame - Florida Keys Visitors Facebook page

Islamorada officials are particularly frustrated with the situation because the three-mile stretch of land on either side of U.S. 1, from mile marker 77 to 80, belongs to the Florida Department of Transportation and the state Department of Environmental Protection, not the village. This means that other than send staff to clean up the mess on Monday, they can’t do much of anything to stop people from littering the beach, mangroves and water.

“We are already incurring the cost of cleaning this pit up every weekend, and FDOT has done nothing to take care of that property,” said Councilman Ken Davis, who along with other council members, said the state should let the village lease the fill and operate it. “If we have to incur the cost and pay for it, why shouldn’t we run it?”

Mayor Deb Gillis told FDOT’s liaison to the village, Elizabeth Jett, that there are too many bureaucracies involved on the state level for significant action to happen at the fill. FDOT had a proposed $1.2 million project in 2016 that included building parking spaces and planting trees along the fill to control how many people used it. But, the plan went nowhere.

“There was a whole alphabet of agencies down there saying, ‘You have to do this, and you have to do that,’ and that’s why we had to take the lead because we were tired of the runaround,” Gillis said. “It’s not that we’re in love with leasing the area, we just want to get something done. And, it needed to be done before Memorial Day, five years ago. More than that.”

Councilman Mike Forster said the plan still exists and it should be implemented.

“A plan was in place. It’s not like we have to reinvent the wheel,” he said.

Jett said she would talk to FDOT about looking at the plan again.

“It’s a shame it didn’t come to fruition at the time. I wasn’t involved. But, I’m very hopeful we can get there again and you can execute the plan this time,” she said.

In the meantime, Councilwoman Cheryl Meads said DEP should install a temporary fence along the beach to discourage people from hanging out at the fill until a plan is implemented.

“DEP can put a fence up to the waterline until we can decide what to do,” she said. “What’s happening there is completely unacceptable.”

On Monday afternoon, Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay weighed in, sending a letter to FDOT not just about the partying and litter at the fill, but the congestion and traffic safety issues along that stretch of U.S. 1 that are a byproduct of the area’s popularity.

Ramsay successfully lobbied FDOT to lower the speed limit there from 55 mph to 50 mph after four Spanish tourists were killed in a crash while waiting to make a left turn to the beach in March 2018. Now, he wants FDOT to conduct a “comprehensive traffic study/evaluation of this area in an effort to better determine what can be done to make this area safer for the public,” Ramsay wrote in the letter to FDOT District Secretary James Wolfe.

Ramsay also wants a meeting that includes FDOT, the village government, the sheriff’s office and the Florida Highway Patrol to discuss issues at the fill and traffic through the area.

“My concerns about Indian Key Fill have not abated,” Ramsay said in a statement released Monday.