Marco Islanders call for Collier, city to install accessibility mat on South Beach
Nancy Moriarty, a Marco Island part-time resident for almost 30 years, said she grew up going to Jones Beach in New York with her mom and five siblings. She said they would pack the car and drive to the beach while praying to Saint Christopher, patron saint of travelers.
"When you are jumping waves you are not worrying about family and health," Moriarty said.
Moriarty said she was an avid swimmer, but now that she needs an electric scooter to move around she can only get into the island's warm ocean water if her adult kids or grandkids are there to carry her. Moriarty, a nurse for 30 years, said that being in salty water relieves her back pain.
"The saltwater is very healing," Moriarty said.
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A group of Marco Island residents, led by the an emergency response nonprofit called Marco Patriots, is calling for government authorities to install what would be one of the island's first accessibility beach mats.
Also called mobility mats, accessibility mats are non-slip removable paths that provide a firmer surface for people who use wheelchairs or other mobility tools. The proposed mat would allow people like Moriarty to safely get close to the water on South Marco Beach.
Erin Mia Milchman, board president of the Patriots, said installing an accessibility mat on the beach is the right thing to do.
"Our demographic deserves it. It will make everyone's life happier and easier," Milchman said.
The city of Marco Island has about 18,000 residents, and slightly more than half are 65 or older, according to a U.S. Census Bureau population estimate from 2019.
Mick Moriarty, Nancy Moriarty's husband for more than 50 years, said an accessibility mat would allow him to go to the beach with his wife without the help of others.
"It would open a whole new world for me," Nancy Moriarty said.
But a beach mat would also help younger people with disabilities, said Julie Proctor, mom and full-time caretaker of her son Nathan Proctor, 31, who has cerebral palsy.
Julie Proctor, a part-time resident for the past six years, said her son uses a manual wheelchair with her assistance because the disorder prevents him from walking and performing other tasks independently.
"He loves the outdoors," Julie Proctor said.
Julie Proctor said she cannot take her son to the beach by herself. She said she can only take him to a boardwalk at Residents' Beach on Marco.
"Unless I have my other sons, who are big, strong guys, we don't go to the beach," Julie Proctor said.
Julie Proctor said her son's wheelchair is custom-made so he is not able to use other wheelchairs such as the ones with large, wide wheels designed to be used on the beach. She said having an accessibility mat on South Marco Beach would be "life-changing" because it would allow her son to do many of the things his family likes to do.
"We like to go to the beach, put the umbrella up, hang out, have a picnic, and he would be able to be part of that," Julie Proctor said.
Collier, Marco Island get involved
The Marco Patriots pitched the idea to the Marco Island City Council in December. In late January, the proposal was discussed at a meeting of the city's beach and coastal resources committee.
Andrew Tyler, a former member of the beach committee, said at the meeting that he estimates that an accessibility beach mat on Residents' Beach could cost as much as $38,000 based on one company's price.
Tyler said at the meeting that other factors should be considered such as maintenance and regulations protecting sea turtles.
Michelle Kerr, public information specialist with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, wrote in an email Tuesday beach mats should be able to run to the water’s edge outside of sea turtle nesting season, unless there are local restrictions.
Nesting season runs from May 1 through October.
"During season, they are not prohibited, but there is a limit on how far they can go down the beach as to not impede nesting sea turtles, but still allow beach access to those using the beach mats," Kerr wrote.
Robert Roth, former member of the city's waterways committee, said Friday he estimates, based on the prices of another company, that having a mat on South Marco Beach would likely not cost more than $20,000.
Roth said he prefers that the mat be installed first on South Marco Beach because Residents' Beach is for members only while South Beach's entrance is public.
"It is more important because it is accessible to everybody," Roth said about the South Beach proposal.
Tonia Selmeski, environmental planner with the city of Marco Island, wrote in an email Friday that the beach committee voted at its January meeting to defer the item to city staff to do further research.
"Staff has discussed the proposal with County representatives and met with interested stakeholders at South Beach to learn more about the beach mat, costs, and maintenance requirements," Selmeski wrote.
Selmeski wrote she will present this item again to the beach committee before making a recommendation to City Council.
On April 22, Collier County Commissioner Rick LoCastro and Barry Williams, the county's parks and recreation director, met with the Patriots at South Marco Beach to discuss the mat proposal. LoCastro represents Marco Island and surrounding areas.
If the county would take on this project, Williams said at the outdoor meeting that the county would have to complete several steps such as identifying funds for the project, preparing a description of the project and selecting a vendor through a bid process.
"We are doing this," LoCastro said.