In a photo taken before the COVID pandemic, a cruise ship docks at Pier B in Key West, which is owned by developer and hotelier Mark Walsh. CITY OF KEY WEST/ Contributed

Key West’s effort to ban large cruise ships is on death row, the governor its only lifeline.
A single signature by Gov. Ron DeSantis could bring a breathless end to Key West’s cruise ship debate today. If DeSantis approves the bill passed by the Florida House late Wednesday night, cruise ships of all sizes will continue coming to Key West. If DeSantis instead vetoes the bill, Key West’s Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships will prevail. But a veto is unlikely given the breadth of the transportation bill that contains the cruise ship legislation.
Just before 10 p.m. Wednesday, the Florida House passed a transportation bill that, among other things, prohibits all Florida seaports from restricting maritime commerce based on a ship’s size, type, cargo, or environmental record. Key West’s Safer Cleaner Ships initiative — and 62% of Key West voters — aimed to do just that by banning a majority of cruise ships based on their size and capacity.
The Seaport Preemption language started as a stand-alone bill that focused solely on the port of Key West and specifically targeted its voter-approved initiatives.
But earlier this week, the bill, filed by Republican state Sen. Jim Boyd, seemed poised to fail in the House. Amendments had been added. Concerns had been raised about the state disregarding the wlll of local voters. And a national news story revealed that Key West cruise port owner Mark Walsh — and his associated companies — had donated $995,000 to DeSantis’s political campaign.
That’s when Boyd tailored the language to prohibit all ports from restricting maritime commerce and added the measure to a broader transportation bill whose statewide impacts and widespread support made it likely to pass.
It did.
The transportation bill — including Boyd’s port preemption language — was on its way to the governor’s desk. (The Senate had approved it Tuesday.)
“This is week nine (of the legislative session), and the Senate and the House sometimes reach compromise language, that this could be one of those that nobody likes and maybe that’s the right way to end it,” Rep. Ed Hooper, Republican from Clearwater, told Jacob Ogles of FloridaPolitics.com.
But Rep. Jim Mooney, an Islamorada Republican who represents the Keys, argued against the amendment before the bill passed the House in a 75-40 vote. Mooney said cruise ships cause water turbidity that is bad for fishing and the ecosystem.
“It is my job to protect the ecosystem in the Florida Keys, and that’s what I am going to do,” he said, according to Ogles, who also spoke with Michael Rubin of the Florida Ports Council.
“‘With thousands of cruise-related employees still sidelined, and cruise ships still unable to sail, it’s vital that local seaports are not further restricted in their ability to conduct business and create economic development opportunities,’ council Vice President of Governmental Affairs Michael Rubin said in a prepared statement,” Ogles reported in FloridaPolitics.com.

Key West restaurant owner Bill Lay, who opposed Key West’s cruise ship limits because of the threat to jobs, told Keys Weekly, “This entire situation was avoidable. All people had to do is sit down and talk, that’s how things get done. The attitude of ‘think like me or die,’ will never work. We ALL want the same thing: A healthy, clean, safe and prosperous community. We ALL love this island and each other, because we ALL matter. We just have to learn to talk things out. “Once again this entire situation was avoidable, from the highest level of government to the busboy who relocated his family because opportunity’s door was closed in their face. I personally hate the fact that this is outside of our community, it needed to remain here.”

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