The Florida Department of Transportation is engaged in a full-on campaign to take back right of way from businesses along U.S. 1.
The problem is, many of the establishments were under the impression for decades that the land in question was theirs.
"It's frightening. I think it's a shakedown of Keys businesses," land and business owner Tanya Cleary said. "They knew we had no choice but to use this right of way. We have for decades used it for parking."
The issue came to a head Wednesday when FDOT bulldozers ripped up the front parking lot of Harriette's Restaurant at mile marker 95.7. FDOT gave Harriette's owner Harriette Mattson a "courtesy notification" one day earlier informing her that a wrecking crew was on its way.
Mattson has known the spaces were FDOT's since she bought the restaurant in 1982, but for the past three decades the state didn't seem to mind.
That changed in February 2012 when FDOT blocked off the spaces with plastic, flexible delineators. That outraged many members of the community, as well as several of Mattson's fellow business owners.
Within months, the barriers were down and customers were again parking in the spaces.
Mattson said Wednesday that she has been paying FDOT $129 a month for the past six months to use the spaces, and she's offered to buy the tiny area from the state.
"They sent the last check back," she said. "The spaces are on FDOT right of way and they're taking it."
FDOT plans to build a median bordered by a 6-inch curb where the front parking lot was located.
Maria A. Llanes, the FDOT right of way manager who sent Mattson the July 8 e-mail, said Mattson did not comply with part of the lease agreement stating it was her responsibility to put landscaping where FDOT is now placing the median.
"They never followed through," Llanes said.
Nancy Yankow, Mattson's attorney, called FDOT's actions "disgusting."
"You can bet this is going to result in legal fireworks and extraordinarily negative publicity," Yankow said.
Cleary owns two lots on the bay side of mile marker 99.2, land that's home to three separate businesses. FDOT sent her a letter about a year ago saying some of her property is encroaching on state right of way. A building constructed decades ago sits on some of the right of way in question.
"What are they going to do," Cleary asked. "Are they really going to bulldoze our building?"
Llanes said she is not familiar with Cleary's property, and that the case is being managed by a different FDOT official. Llanes said she could also not answer the question of why FDOT is reclaiming rights of way after years of inaction.
Some property owners who spoke to The Reporter said they built their buildings decades ago, submitted their plans to the county, were approved and were never told any part of their property belonged to FDOT.
Llanes said it is the property owners' responsibility, not the county, to verify no part of their land is right of way.
Regardless of who's responsible, FDOT's latest action against Mattson's business is not sitting well with many in the Keys, who are already frustrated with an agency they say has no regard for the Monroe County public.
"I am totally disheartened with our government from Washington down to our state and local county," said John Fernandez of Islamorada. "Why not work with Harriette to help her keep her business going after being there for so many years?"
Monroe County Mayor Sylvia Murphy said she doesn't see what can be done to stop FDOT.
"It's unfortunate, but I don't know what anybody can do about it. It happens to be [FDOT] property, and they have the legal right to use their property," Murphy said.
State Rep. Holly Raschein said she is meeting with FDOT District 6 Administrator Gus Pego later this month to discuss the issue.
"There has to be some balance, and we have to figure out a way how we're going to help these businesses," Raschein said.
In the meantime, two Facebook pages have been created in protest to FDOT, "Stop FDOT" and "Save Harriette's."
Kevin Wadlow contributed to this report.