Key West business owners plead with legislators over port bill: ‘Respect our vote.’

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Mary Ellen Klas
·8 min read
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Nineteen business owners and Key West residents took time off their jobs Wednesday — canceling fishing trips, boat tours and business meetings — to travel to Tallahassee before dawn so they could plead with a Senate committee to reject a bill designed to cancel out their vote to limit cruise ship traffic in the Florida Keys.

“I’m here to ask for opportunity, self determination and for respect for our community’s ballot box,” said Billy Litmer, owner of Honest Eco Charters. He said he refunded $2,000 for canceled charters and skipped a city board meeting in which he was seeking permission to purchase a neighboring business “because today’s losses will pale in comparison to the economic damage we will suffer if we wrecked the reef with these giant ships.”

Despite their appeals, the Senate Rules Committee voted 12-5 to approve SB 426 which would preempt three new ordinances adopted by more than 60% of voters in Key West in November. The measures ban cruise ships with more than 1,300 passengers from docking at the city port and limit the total number of cruise visitors who can disembark each day to 1,500. A similar bill, HB 267, is barreling through the House.

Unable to defeat the bill in committee at the Capitol, the Key West organizers then assembled at the Governor’s Mansion, where they hoped to send a message to urge the governor to threaten a veto if the bills should pass.

“We want to find balance, and we want to protect the beautiful things in Florida that make us a great state. We know you care about that and invite you down,’’ said Will Benson, an award-winning fishing guide.

He invited DeSantis, who has not commented on the bill, to come fishing with them so they could show him the migration of the “silver kings,” the tarpon that come every spring to Key West. “We’re looking for your leadership on this.”

The business owners explained how the goal of the initiative was to protect the coral reef and its ecosystem but to the GOP-controlled Senate Rules Committee, they focused on the economics.

Before this year, they said, they had a love-hate relationship with the cruise ship industry. In a normal year, 900,000 people disembarked from cruise ships as three cruise ships a day sent 9,000 to 12,000 people onto the narrow streets and sidewalks of Key West for a five-hour visit.

“If you can imagine the chaos and the mayhem that occurs during those times,’’ said Teri Johnston, Key West’s mayor. “It’s not a quality experience for our visitors. It’s not a quality experience for our residents.”

Business in Key West has been good

But since the last shipped sailed out of their port in March 2020, the tourist-dependent economy has retooled its marketing plans and even without the cruise traffic has rebounded. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s no-sail order for cruise ships served as a forced experiment of what could happen if an extreme version of the citizen’s initiative were to take effect. And the unintended consequences surprised everyone.

The community was “very, very scared” when COVID-19 forced the cancellation of cruises to their tiny island, Johnston said, but the pandemic led business owners to rewrite their business model and Key West businesses are now “a having a record year.”

“They’re actually serving less customers who are actually buying more in an enjoyable environment,’’ she said.

“At the end of the year 2020, we were at 97% of our sales tax revenue against the year 2019, which was a record year for the city of Key West,’’ Johnston said. Businesses operating from the city’s working waterfront are “at 98% and above and some are 124% of their last year’s sales.”

The business owners told the committee they organized the voter referenda not to eliminate cruise traffic but to protect the ecosystem on which their livelihoods depend.

“‘I’m here to beg you to listen to the fishermen who’ve been raising the alarm for decades about the negative impacts large cruise ships have on our water quality and on their health,’’ said Arlo Haskell, who was born and raised in the Keys and was one of the organizers of the referenda effort.

“We want cruise ships to come to Key West. We support the governor’s call to lift the no-sail order. All we’re saying is send us your smaller ships because mega cruise ships are destroying the beauty of the Florida Keys and threatening the future of our tourist-based economy.”

Debating changes in water quality

Lobbyist Josh Aubuchon, hired by the activists, explained that the referendum would not stop 94% of the cruise ship traffic that comes into port and would allow 35 current vessels to qualify and another 49 cruise ships under construction.

The fishing guides said that since the CDC’s no-sail order for cruise ships, there has been a noticeable improvement in the water quality around the Keys. They said their anecdotal information was validated by a recent report by Henry Briceño of FIU’s Institute of Environment who assessed surface water clarity changes in Key West during what is becoming known as the “anthropause.”

Briceño compared 25 years of data collected from FIU’s water quality monitoring program and data from satellites to conclude that “median turbidity in surface waters south of Key West during the shutdown was significantly lower than the median of the previous 25 years.”

The study said that while the magnitude of the change was “very small,” it was still significant, “underscoring the sensitivity of this ecosystem to even very small changes.”

But proponents of the bill discredited the report as “slanted” because it failed to include the impact of heavy rainfall from hurricanes and the southward flow of discharge from the Everglades.

“I would not trust this report,’’ said Danny Hughes, owner of Two Friends Patio Restaurant, who once served on the board of the Port of New Orleans.

Warren Husband, lobbyist for the Florida Harbor Pilots Association, dismissed the impact of the cruise ships on the reef.

“Elevated levels of turbidity have to exist for a period of at least two hours to affect in a negative way sensitive species of coral,’’ he said. The turbidity picked up by a cruise ship moving through the waters of Key West “only lasts about 15 to 30 minutes and then turbidity returns to the background state of the water.”

Michael Halpern, co-owner of the Southernmost House Hotel, said that legendary museums like the Mel Fisher Museum, the Harry Truman White House, and the Hemingway House “have been severely damaged by the ban on cruise ships.” He did not mention that the ordinances took effect in November and the no-sail order by the CDC took effect months before that.

He said the debate was a class war in which the promoters of the restrictions wanted to take their downtown back from what he said they consider “the lowest common denominator of tourism.”

Business people state their case

But several business owners, who said they collected funds to charter a plane to Tallahassee to have their voices heard, took offense at that characterization.

“We all know it’s about overturning a free and fair election because the big cruise industry doesn’t like what we’ve done,’’ said Evan Haskell, who owns a bicycle shop in Key West. “They’ve also said this issue was started by a few wealthy people who want a private island. I’m here today with 19 who are the working class of Key West. We depend on tourism.”

Senate sponsor of the bill, Sen. Jim Boyd, a Bradenton Republican, narrowed the bill to apply it exclusively to Key West by limiting the preemption to “any port that is located in or adjoining an area of critical state concern.”

He said he sponsored the bill at the request of the harbor pilots, who have lost business because of the no-sail rule and fear the referendum will hurt them more.

Boyd agreed that the Key West economy was doing well during the pandemic, but he attributed that to the fact that people were restricted from traveling to the Caribbean. He dismissed the claims that big ships were causing harm.

“Cruise ships have been going in and out of there since 1960,’’ he said. “There is no scientifically based study that I’ve seen that’s true science that suggests the reefs are being destroyed.”

Democratic Sens. Lauren Book of Plantation and Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville joined Republicans in voting for the measure. Republican Sen. Travis Hutson of St. Augustine joined with four Democrats to oppose it. A similar version is up next in the House Commerce Committee, which has its last scheduled meeting on Monday.

Outside the Governor’s Mansion later on Wednesday, the mayor said the Keys took note when DeSantis was elected on a strong pro-environment platform.

“We are hoping and we are counting on the fact that the governor follows through with his environmental stance to help protect against situations like this,’’ Johnston said.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at and @MaryEllenKlas