Florida Keys

Visitors leave this Keys beach a mess — and a local leader is putting the state on notice

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Trash is a major problem in our oceans, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Here's how long it takes for some of the most common types of trash to decompose — including straws, plastic bags and balloons.

A Florida Keys lawmaker is threatening to withdraw the Village of Islamorada’s maintenance agreement with the Florida Department of Transportation for a roadside beach the highway agency owns — but does not maintain — unless the state does more to control weekend crowds there who regularly leave large amounts of trash for locals to clean up.

Weekend revelers at Indian Key Fill have been an issue the village has been struggling with since it incorporated in 1997. Longtime residents say the problem goes back way further than that. But the crowds, mostly coming from the mainland, have gotten bigger, and so has the mess they leave behind.

Following Memorial Day weekend, residents took photos and posted them on social media showing mounds of garbage, grills, dead fish and even human waste left at the fill. The problem persists every weekend, but it gets worse on holidays like Memorial Day, Labor Day and the Fourth of July.

Village Councilman Ken Davis requested an item be placed on the five-member board’s Thursday meeting to discuss abandoning the maintenance agreement with FDOT, which would force the agency to come up with a plan for the Indian Key Fill beach just days before July 4. The holiday is expected to bring thousands of people to the two-mile beach located between Lower and Upper Matecumbe keys.

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Families gather on the beach at Indian Key fill in Islamorada recently. Islamorada residents and officials want the state, which owns the land, to do more to limit the amount of people who gather there, citing litter and traffic congestion issues. Wall of Shame -- Florida Keys Visitors Facebook page

“The Indian Key Fills of Islamorada have become both an environmental and fiscal burden to the village and its taxpaying residents,” Davis stated in a Facebook post this week. “A burden we should no longer bear.”

Not only is litter a problem, hundreds of people park their cars alongside the busy stretch of U.S. 1, causing congestion and accidents. There are also no restroom facilities, leaving nowhere for beach goers to use the bathroom except for the water and in plastic grocery bags, which many leave behind. Those cleaning up the mess after busy weekends are often presented with bags of human waste hanging from mangrove branches.

The Village Council held a meeting last week to gather public input for what to do with the beach. Options included closing it off to the public, which the village itself does not have the authority to do, and leasing it from the state so Islamorada can enforce its own litter laws and enact new ordinances on parking and how long people can stay at the fill.

Following the public meeting, another one was held that included Islamorada Mayor Deb Gillis, FDOT officials, Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials and Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay, who has been urging FDOT to lower the speed limit on the stretch of U.S. 1 that goes through Indian Key Fill since four Spanish tourists were killed there in March 2018.

“The positive note is we were all in the room talking, because it’s been a while since all that happened,” Gillis said Wednesday.

She said FDOT District 6 Secretary Jim Wolfe was open to the idea of the village leasing the fill, but Islamorada officials first need to develop a master plan that would have to be reviewed and accepted by FDOT.

“He can’t just say, ‘Oh, sure Islamorada,’” Gillis said. “He has to consider his set of protocols. But, he’s listening to us.”

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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

One constant the state insists on for the fill is that whoever manages it, it must remain open to the public. There is a boat ramp there, which is one of the few places left in the Keys where people can launch their vessels for free, and FDOT wants it to stay that way, Gillis said.

“The boat ramp is a public ramp,” Gillis said. “It just can’t be closed.”

At least two Village Council members, Cheryl Meads and Jim Mooney, say they are wary of the lease option, citing cost and liability.

In the meantime, Gillis said the village is trying to prepare for July 4 by placing more garbage cans and dumpsters in the area, and deploying village staff there on the holiday. Although many of the weekend tourists and day trippers leave their trash on the ground, litter is also a problem because the limited number of garbage cans overflow.

Seth Lawless, Islamorada village manager, sent an email to his staff Wednesday stating that the municipality has placed water-filled plastic barriers, cones and tape in an effort to restrict access to the fill throughout the July 4 holiday.

The village is also adding six portable toilets throughout the fills that will be emptied twice a day throughout the four-day weekend, according to the memo.

Lawless also stated there will be ‘no parking” signs placed along the bike paths between U.S. 1 and the beaches. An electronic sign will read “Lot Full” after about 90 cars park in the area, Lawless wrote in the memo.

FDOT pays the village around $54,000 a year to maintain and clean up Indian Key Fill. But, according to an estimate released by Islamorada’s Public Works department, the village actually ends up spending around $450,000 to keep up the area.

“And, they don’t even appreciate it,” Davis said Wednesday about FDOT.

Councilman Mike Forster, who sent an email to FDOT Secretary Kevin Thibault this week urging state action at the fill, said he had a conference call with several state officials, where they “made a lot of headway” on the issue.

Thursday’s Village Council meeting, where the Indian Key Fill issue is expected to be discussed, is scheduled to start at 5:30 p.m. at Village Hall at Fouders Park, mile marker 87, bay side.

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