A cruise ship docks, pre-pandemic, at the privately owned Pier B in Key West. LARRY BLACKBURN/Keys Weekly

A surprise ceasefire settled Key West’s latest cruise ship conflict on May 16, when city officials voted to stay out of matters between a private cruise ship pier and the state of Florida.

At the behest of Safer Cleaner Ships, which has led the charge against large ships in Key West, some commissioners and the mayor had considered opposing Pier B’s request that the state make permanent an expansion of the underwater area that Pier B leases from the state. 

A temporary use permit for Pier B’s larger submerged area was granted in July 2022, but expires after a year. Pier B’s owners are asking the state to approve that lease for 25 years.

The company’s application states, “there are no modifications that would change the use of the leased area and no new structures are being proposed.”

“I encourage you to draft a resolution formally opposing this request,” Arlo Haskell, treasurer of Safer Cleaner Ships, told city officials at a May 9 meeting.

But at the start of the May 16 commission meeting, Capt. Will Benson of Safer Cleaner Ships told the commission that SCS and Pier B had met behind the scenes and agreed to disagree.

“We still have our differences, but maybe won’t drag this community through the mud and relitigate this issue again and again,” Benson said, instead urging the commission to adopt a neutral position toward the Pier B application to the state and neither support or oppose it.

The threat of a costly lawsuit in a letter from Pier B’s lawyers also helped convince the city commission to remain neutral in the matter. Attorney Frank Zacherl made clear that the city’s opposition to Pier B’s request would represent a breach of the city’s agreement with Pier B that for 25 years has provided the city with 25% of Pier B’s cruise ship revenues and would be viewed as legally actionable.

Before their neutrality vote, commissioners heard from a few cruise ship opponents, who remind the commissioners of the public referendums that voters passed in 2020 to reduce cruise ships in Key West.

Those restrictions ultimately applied only to cruise ship docks operated by the city, as officials were warned repeatedly that the city would face significant lawsuits if it tried to interfere with the private business of Pier B.

The state legislature later voided the voter referendums and further prohibited any municipality from doing anything that restricts maritime commerce in the state.

Commissioners Sam Kaufman, Lissette Carey and Mary Lou Hoover at the May 9 meeting had expressed concern about the city’s interference with Pier B’s application, concerns that were realized in the attorney’s letter.

“Before I make any decisions, I want to hear from our lobbyists how this will be viewed by Tallahassee,” Kaufman said at the May 9 meeting.

He reiterated those concerns in general on May 16, urging his colleagues on the dais to “be careful how we present ourselves to the state. We have a lot of capital projects that’ll need the help of the state legislature, and we need to be strategic if all we do is comment against whatever state bills are pending in Tallahassee.”

Also at the May 16 meeting, Commissioner Clayton Lopez said he wants to consider using $4 million of the city’s COVID stimulus funds to lower the purchase price of homes at the upcoming Lofts development in Bahama Village. Currently, the developers have requested the $4 million from the Monroe County Land Authority, but that would come with restrictions that would force homeowners to move out of their home if they ever end up earning more than the income limits for workforce housing.

A further discussion will likely take place at the June 8 meeting.

Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.