The fight to limit cruise ships in Key West appears far from over.
City commissioners on Monday directed city staff to bring them proposed ordinances to find a way that they uphold a local vote that curbed cruise ship traffic. That vote was overturned this year by new state legislation.
The request came after a special commission meeting packed with locals, many demanding that their elected leaders work to reinstate the limits voters ordered in November.
It’s possible, the city attorney said Tuesday.
“You as a city commission maintain the power to pass ordinances with respect to these issues,” City Attorney Shawn Smith told the seven leaders.
Smith, though, warned them the city would very likely face a lawsuit over such a decision.
“That’s not to say whatever you pass, if you pass something, isn’t preempted next year by the Legislature again,” Smith said. “You do have the power to pass an ordinance.”
Key West voters passed three referendums that capped the number of passengers that can disembark daily to 1,500, banned cruise ships with a capacity of 1,300 from coming at all and gave docking priority to cruise lines with the best health and environmental records.
Those limits changed the city charter.
But state lawmakers responded with legislation that canceled that vote, prohibiting local ballot initiatives that restrict maritime commerce, including the size of ships. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill on June 29.
The city commission quickly decided to hold a special meeting to discuss its options.
A lawsuit ‘on steroids’
Commissioner Greg Davila said the city was going to get sued over the referendums approved by voters anyway.
“The door’s open,” Davila said. “We can pass an ordinance that has the same effect the referendum did in order to ensure that the votes of the citizens of Key West are upheld.”
“The lawsuit that we’re going to face is duck tours on steroids,” Smith said, referring to a lawsuit that rocked the small island.
In 2005, a jury ordered the city to pay nearly $13.5 million to a company that wanted to operate “duck tours” using amphibious vehicles but ran into obstacles from the city, which has an agreement with Historic Tours of America, the operators of the Conch Train and Old Town Trolley Tours.
The city later settled the case for $8 million.
Key West has three piers that accept cruise ships. One at Mallory Square is city-owned and the city also runs the pier at the Navy-owned Outer Mole pier. But Pier B, outside the Opal Key Resort, is a private cruise ship port owned by the Walsh family of Delray Beach.
Pier B has had a cruise ship docking deal with the city that dates back to 1994. It renews every 10 years unless both parties agree to cancel it, Smith said. The city collects 25 percent of the revenue from Pier B.
“You allowed them to construct a cruise port that’s why they’re giving you 25 percent of the revenue,” Smith said.
“I think Pier B sues us,” Smith said. “I don’t think it’s a threat. I think it’s legitimate.”
Attorney Barton Smith, who represents Pier B Development Corporation, reminded the commission of the history of the pier’s agreement with the city. Pier B has invested millions to support cruise ship tourism in Key West, he said.
“All that we have ever done is exactly what the city required us to do,” Smith said. “We hope and expect the city to continue to honor the agreement and are willing to meet with the city on the issues.”
Commissioner Jimmy Weekley said Key West voters have already spoken when it comes to curbing cruise ships.
“We have to have their backs,” Weekley said. “We have to stand here and find a way in which we can defend that referendum question that was passed. And we’ve got to tell the state of Florida, you can preempt us all you want, we’re going to keep coming back with ordinances or resolutions in a way that we can get what our constituents want.”
Cruise ships are scheduled to return to Key West in September.
“We can give them direction on our two ports that they aren’t welcome,” Weekley told City Manager Patti McLauchlin.
“We can if that’s the direction the commission wants to give me,” McLauchlin replied.
Some in the crowd called cruise ship limits unfair.
“My issue is not the cruise ships,” said Michael Halpern, co-owner of the Southernmost House on Duval Street, who reminded the room of his career as a civil rights lawyer.
Halpern said his issue is “the civil rights matter of not wanting people who don’t spend enough money” because they come to Key West on the big lower-priced cruise ships. He wondered why no one has presented a plan for how the “economically disadvantaged” could visit Key West without those ships.
Christopher Ellis, who owns Key Lime Bike Tours, said about 60 percent of his business comes from cruise ships.
“This was done intentionally to cut off all cruise ships,” Ellis said, of the limits in the referendums. “I’m obviously shaking, I’m so mad about this. It’s costing me my business. I laid off 13 people, my entire staff, the day after this referendum got voted on.”