Key West voters limited cruise ship traffic. State lawmakers will consider overruling them

Gwen Filosa
·5 min read

In November, Key West voters changed how the island will deal with the cruise ship industry.

They capped the number of passengers that can disembark each day to 1,500, limited mooring to ships with a capacity of 1,300, and gave docking priorities to cruise lines with the best health and environmental records.

But state lawmakers this year could cancel out those election results. The 2021 legislative session starts Tuesday, and the cruise ship issue is in the Capitol.

Filed by state Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, a so-called preemption bill would retroactively bar local governments from regulating seaport business, including restricting a vessel’s type or size. A companion bill was filed in the House by Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, and Rep. Tyler I. Sirois, R-Merritt Island.

Opponents to the bills, including the Key West City Commission, say the legislation goes against “home rule,” and cancels what local voters already decided at the polls.

The City Commission last month unanimously passed a resolution urging the Legislature to support home rule, saying the bills would “deny the will of local voters at the expense of the environment.”

“The Florida Legislature’s efforts to limit home rule conflicts with the rights and ability of local government and local voters to protect and improve their own community and the environment,” the resolution states.

But the Senate bill says allowing local governments to impose their own requirements on maritime commerce would be bad for business, “and potentially drive it out of the port and out of the state in search of a more consistent and predictable operating environment, thus disrupting Florida’s economy and threatening the public’s health, safety, and welfare.”

For now, the issue is moot. No passenger cruises have departed from U.S. ports since March 2020 due to pandemic restrictions by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But cruise ships are a divisive issue in Key West, whether they’re sailing or not.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Key West took in about a million cruise ship passengers each year. Local critics say the cruise passengers spent far less than overnight visitors and, with COVID-19, now bring the risk of a disease outbreak on an island with limited healthcare options. There are 167 hospital beds, including 10 ICU beds, in Key West.

The distaste for cruise passengers eventually found its way to the ballot.

The Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships emerged last year, gathering enough signatures to place three referendums before city voters in an effort to reduce cruise ship traffic.

“Although cruise ships bring 50 percent of all tourists to Key West, they bring only 6 percent of tourist spending,” said Arlo Haskell, a committee organizer, at a Feb. 16 Senate Committee on Transportation hearing. “Big ships don’t bring big money to Key West but they do bring big problems.”

The campaign leading up to the Nov. 3 vote included disinformation-filled mailers paid for by cruise companies through a dark money scheme. But they didn’t work.

The limits on cruise ship visitors passed by 63%, and the ban on larger ships passed by 61%. A third referendum giving docking priorities to cruise ships with the best environmental and health records passed by about 81%.

The referendums drew legal challenges in federal and state court, but they survived. After the election, though, the city was left facing a lawsuit in state court by Pier B Development, which is owned by Mark Walsh and is the only privately owned cruise pier in Key West, which has three. It’s also the only private cruise pier in Florida.

But Pier B dropped its case in late January.

Safer, Cleaner Ships said the voluntary dismissal showed the weakness of the claim, but Pier B attorney Barton Smith said the case was dropped only because it sought to prevent the referendum vote from appearing on the ballot.

“That case is moot by the vote occurring,” Smith said. “My client certainly will look at options to potential claims it may have.”

Some say the new cruise ship limits in Key West go too far.

The referendums were hardly a compromise when it comes to reducing the number of cruise ships that come to the island, said John Wells, the founder of Caribe Nautical, an agency that arranges ports of call from each ship that stops in Key West.

In 2022, Key West already has 287 firm reservations for cruise ships of all sizes, Wells told the Senate Committee on Transportation on Feb. 16.

“Of those 287, only 18 will meet the size criteria,” Wells said. “That’s only 6 percent. Hundreds of thousands of passengers that want to come to Key West cannot come, and that affects all businesses that rely on cruise tourism.”

In an interview, Wells said the election didn’t reflect the views of everyone in the Keys.

“All the people affected throughout the Lower Keys and Monroe County were not given the chance to vote,” Wells said. “The process was very flawed. The election was flawed.”

The Florida Harbor Pilots Association, which represents about 100 harbor pilots who man the state’s seaports, supports the proposed legislation.

“A patchwork of new local government regulations would make port operations unpredictable, drive away commerce, threaten port investments, disrupt Florida’s economy, and result in job loss,” Sarah Bascom, a spokeswoman for the association, said in a statement.

However, the Florida Ports Council, the port industry’s main lobbying group, is not on board with the bills.

“As currently written we’re concerned about what it does to existing operations at all of our Florida seaports,” said Michael Rubin, vice president of government affairs for the council. “We think it’s too broad and frankly unnecessary.”