County rejects proposed 700-foot channel dredge

A controversial proposal to dredge a boating channel through a Florida Keys seagrass flat sank like a stone Thursday.

“This is plowing up the ocean bottom. There’s no nicer way to put it,” Monroe County Commissioner Sylvia Murphy said in rejecting a plan forwarded for a 700-foot channel into private Walker’s Island near Duck Key.

County commissioners unanimously agreed that a re-dredging plan laboriously crafted over several years by Little Conch Key Development Corp. does not mesh with current environmental protections and awareness. Opponents of the dredging contend approval would have set a precedent to allow dredging anywhere in the Keys.

“Conservation, preservation and restoration” has been the goal for decades, Commissioner Danny Kolhage said. “Approval of this sends a message that we’re reversing what we’ve been doing for the last 30 years.”

Developer Thomas Cirrito and land-use consultant Sandra Walters said mitigation measures and new protections would safeguard the surrounding 26-acre flat, while allowing owners of eight oceanfront units access to bring larger boats to the dock.

The channel has silted in over the decades, creating spots less than a foot deep. Seagrass has taken root. The applicants contend the project would be “re-dredging,” not new dredging.

Channel “marking and signage leading to existing docks is hugely effective,” Walters said. “This is better public policy than the status quo.”

Marine contractors John Coffin and Rudy Krause supported the project, saying that restoring the channel would cause minimal damage to the marine ecosystem and prevent new groundings on the flat.

But environmental and Upper Keys homeowners groups weighed in against the concept of allowing dredging of channels created a half-century ago.

The proposal to create a special comprehensive land-use amendment would “allow deeper-draft boats than [the channel] ever accommodated,” said Nova Southeastern University law professor Richard Grosso, who brought a contingent of legal interns to speak at the hearing at the Marathon Government Center.

Dredging in the Keys during the 1950s “seemed to make sense then but it’s viewed as barbaric now,” said Grosso, who used to be a county planner and helped write Monroe’s land-use plan.

Fishing-guides associations submitted letters against destroying habitat needed for sportfish species.

“Fishing is our most important asset. People don’t come here to play golf,” environmental activist Charlie Causey said. “Absolutely every chance we get to protect seagrass and water quality, we should do it.”

“They bought the property knowing the seagrass flat is there and knowing the channel is not there,” said Dottie Moses of Key Largo. “Now they want to bring in their 34-foot boats.”

Commissioners agreed. “If you have a channel and allow it to reach the point this has reached, you don’t have a channel any more,” David Rice said. “You have a seagrass meadow.”

Heather Carruthers suggested the property owners buy flats skiffs or kayaks. “You still have access,” she said. “Just a different kind of access.”

Murphy suggested they keep their larger boats at marinas.

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