In this era of increasing distrust of government, the Florida Department of Transportation has gone out of its way in the Keys lately to impose its will with little regard to the people for which the agency serves.
Trying to re-enact a miniature version of the crushing of the Prague Spring, FDOT Right of Way Administrator Maria A. Llanes this week sent bulldozers to destroy the parking lot of Harriette's Restaurant — one of the Upper Keys' most successful and beloved establishments.
The seven parking spaces at the restaurant at mile marker 95.7 bayside technically belong to the state, but for more than 30 years, FDOT did nothing to take them back. For the past six months, Harriette Mattson, Harriette's owner, has been paying FDOT rent for the property. And she attempted several times to buy the few feet from the state. But FDOT didn't want to sell.
Why does FDOT all of a sudden need this tiny piece of land? Llanes couldn’t say. Until someone from FDOT does, we can deduce blatant hubris.
The only warning Mattson received was an e-mailed "courtesy notification" from Llanes Tuesday saying the bulldozers were on their way.
Florida Keys residents are among the most tolerant people you'll meet. But when it comes to FDOT's heavy-handedness and lack of explanation for many of its actions, there is near-unanimous belief that FDOT barely tolerates dissent.
The raid on Harriette’s comes just months after FDOT installed a crosswalk in Key Largo that not many seem to want, including Monroe County’s Sheriff Rick Ramsay, who rightly fears its location at mile marker 100 will cause injury and even death.
FDOT’s reaction to Ramsay’s concerns? Let’s wait and see. How comforting.
You might remember back in 2006, when the agency sprung on the Keys with no notice that it was installing along U.S. 1 49 poles with cameras atop to keep track of traffic. Initial work had actually started two years earlier, but FDOT never said a thing until folks here noticed they were going up.
The argument here was such traffic monitoring is not needed — we have one main road and there are no alternate routes except for through Islamorada, which has the Old Highway for a bit. So the cameras — and related electronic messaging signs hung over U.S. 1 — really serve no purpose except to cause more visual pollution. Those messaging signs never say "crash ahead" or some such thing. They say "buckle up" and give other useless public service announcements.
As of this writing, FDOT is in the process of blocking Mattson's restaurant with a 6-inch-high median that will significantly shrink the amount of space available for cars trying to enter her restaurant. The unwanted hunk of landscape will also make it tough for delivery trucks to get to the eatery.
There's no telling how many more businesses on U.S. 1 contain state right of way. So expect the FDOT juggernaut to arrive soon at an establishment near you.