(WSVN) - A small section of land is at the center of a big battle in the Florida Keys. One homeowner is suing — claiming a public path is her private property. Karen Hensel has tonight’s 7 Investigates.

Islamorada is a small village known as the “Sport Fishing Capital of the World.”

It is a popular vacation spot with stunning views of the water but getting to the bay one particular way can be a challenge.

Karen Hensel: “You’ve walked back here for a lot of years.”

John Cioffi, Islamorada resident and business owner: “Oh, yeah, about 40 years.”

Resident and business owner John Cioffi recently tried to walk down this path to the water.

John Cioffi: “My godson was in town from Rome, and he wanted to see the bay. We’d been fishing on a dock on the ocean, and he’d never seen the back country.”

But halfway down — John says they were stopped.

John Cioffi: “Well, I got back about here, and the lady came out and started yelling at me that I couldn’t be here, and I had to get off the property, that I’m trespassing. And I said, ‘Well, I thought this was a road. It always was.’ She said, ‘No, it’s private property. You have to get out.'”

She is Mary Barley. Outside of her home there are signs warning: “Posted … No trespassing … Keep out” and “Private.”

Her properties are at the corner of De Leon Avenue and Avacado Street.

The problem?

This land is public.

That’s what the courts have ruled and what the village maintains.

John Cioffi: “This is a road, and being that it’s a road, you can’t just block it off, and you can’t put your things like your structures that she built in a roadway.”

We watched as a lawn crew mowed and manicured the public path that is lined with potted plants and wind chimes — making it look more like a driveway.

John Cioffi: “Used to be able to drive all the way back.”

Karen Hensel: “And the fence wasn’t here?”

John Cioffi: “No.”

Karen Hensel: “You could drive back?”

John Cioffi: “Yes, you could always drive back.”

And at the end of the path, evidence of a now-removed boat ramp and pier once used by the public.

John Cioffi: “Since I have property right up here, I thought for sure that it was still, you know, accessible to the public so evidently not.”

Karen Hensel: “It’s not just blocking access to the water. Part of the issue is that the owner has built this structure for her garbage cans and is storing this pile of wood and metal on what the courts say is not her property.”

John Cioffi: “The point is the public has some say in that, you know, we are taxpayers. It is our land.”

This saga started back in 2001…

That’s when homeowner Mary Barley first sued the Village of Islamorada claiming it was an “abandoned bay path.”

Barley lost the lawsuit — appealed — and lost again.

A judge wrote the “… path was intended for pedestrian and, possibly, bicycle traffic.”

Council Member Mark Gregg, Jan. 19: “What we do have is an opinion from the appellate court that says it’s our road, and we also have the law that says it’s our job to protect that.”

The issue has been a hot topic at village council meetings.

Council Member Mark Gregg, Jan. 19: “We spent 100 grand defending ourselves on it, and the meter is still running.”

Last month, Barley filed another lawsuit against the village.

It claims she had “… made improvements …” and “… exercised … control over all or part of the disputed area…”

An area, Barley claims, “… has never been paved or used as a road…”

Regardless, in the past courts have been clear: it belongs to the public.

Council Member Mark Gregg, Jan. 19: “That hostile claim began back in 2001, when she filed the lawsuit. She lost the lawsuit. She appealed it. It went to the appellate court, she lost again. That matter is done!”

We tried to talk with Mary Barley… Nobody came to the door.

But someone inside the home took this picture of John and me walking the path.

He was questioned in a text, “Why were you at Mary Barley’s house today?” He replied “… I was on the road… I was not at her house…”

John Cioffi: “The public has a right to say whether they want to give something up or not, not up to an individual with a lot of money to just take it.”

For this street fight, it has been a long and winding road… with no end in sight.


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