Key West voters will decide on Nov. 3 whether to change the city’s charter to limit the size of cruise ships that dock at the Southernmost City’s three cruise ship piers and the number of passengers who can come ashore on any given day.

The Key West ballot will include three cruise ship-related questions, following a petition drive by the Key West Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships

Ballot questions

Voters will be asked to answer “yes” or “no” to the following:

  1. Shall the number of persons disembarking from cruise ships be limited to a total of not more than 1,500 persons per day at any and all public and privately owned or leased property located within the municipal boundary of the City of Key West?
  2. Shall cruise ships with the capacity to carry 1,300 or more persons (passengers and crew) be prohibited from disembarking individuals at any and all public or privately owned or leased property located within the municipal boundary of the City of Key West?
  3. Shall the City of Key West give preference and priority to cruise ships and cruise lines that have the best environmental record … and best health record?

The committee needed about 1,500 signed petitions, or 10% of the city’s registered voters, to get the questions on the ballot and accumulated about 2,500 signatures, said Arlo Haskell, president of the Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships.

Cruise questions stir up controversy

The issue has stirred up controversy in Key West and pitted some business owners and workers who depend on revenue from cruise ship passengers against those who want to limit the size and number of ships that visit Key West while giving priority to cruise lines that demonstrate a commitment to environmental protections.

The Key West Chamber of Commerce, using data from 2019, evaluated the potential impacts of the changes. At a June 24 luncheon, executive vice president Scott Atwell reported that under the newly proposed criteria for the size of ships, the number of cruise ship port calls at Key West would drop from 417 to about 22, representing a 95% reduction.

But committee president Haskell and vice president Jolly Benson disagree, saying there are a number of smaller ships that would meet the new size criteria currently operating in the Caribbean, but bypassing Key West. They added that several cruise lines are in the process of reinventing their fleets with smaller vessels that would meet the committee’s size criteria.

Haskell met on July 8 with the Key West Chamber of Commerce board of directors.

“But when the board asked Mr. Haskell why these smaller ships don’t currently visit Key West, he didn’t know,” said Greg Sullivan, president of the Key West chamber. “And when we asked whether he had been in contact with any of these smaller ships, he said that’s not the committee’s job.”

Sullivan added that the chamber board voted on July 8 to support the question that prioritizes environmentally friendly ships, but the chamber will not support the other two ballot questions about size and capacity.

“We have and always will support the environment, but these new restrictions would prohibit ships like the Disney ships and the new Virgin Voyages cruise ship from visiting Key West,” Sullivan said. “Our biggest concern is unintended consequences. The city is already making plans to eliminate police and fire positions if the referendums pass and the city loses tens of millions of dollars in cruise ship revenues.”

Key West Mayor Teri Johnston told Keys Weekly she doesn’t think the city has ever really managed its cruise ship tourism. “And perhaps now is the time to do so,” Johnston said.

The Pier B cruise ship dock behind Margaritaville Key West Resort and Marina is privately owned. If the Key West ballot referendums to limit the size and number of cruise ships pass in November, will they apply to the privately owned Pier B? The jury is still out. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

What about Pier B?

Some organizations and business owners also question if and how the size and capacity limitations, if approved, would apply to the privately owned Pier B, located behind Margaritaville Key West Resort & Marina. The city of Key West owns the Mallory Square dock. The city leases the Outer Mole Pier from the U.S. Navy.

“If approved, the ballot questions are binding amendments to the city charter,” Arlo Haskell told Keys Weekly. “The referendums would apply to all three cruise ship piers — Outer Mole, Mallory Square and Pier B. The city has the municipal authority to do so.”

But Key West City Manager Greg Veliz wasn’t so sure.

“I still haven’t gotten a definitive answer to the question of how these changes would apply to the privately owned Pier B,” Veliz told Keys Weekly.

Key West City Attorney Shawn Smith did not respond to the question about Pier B and whether cruise ship limitations could prompt the owners of Pier B to sue the city for lost revenue.

“They don’t really have a good case for a lawsuit, because this treats all three docks the same way,” said Haskell, who is not a lawyer. “If it was a complete ban, or if it was being applied unequally to the three docks, then perhaps they would.”

Haskell said the owners of Pier B and the connected resort and marina actually lease the bay bottom that’s underneath the cruise ship pier from the state of Florida. “The state constitution actually specifies that submerged lands such as this are to be used for the public benefit,” Haskell said.

Key West attorneys David Paul and Darren Horan tend to disagree, and said they believe the owners of PIer B would indeed have a case for a lawsuit against the city. The Horan Law Firm has been retained by several Key West business owners “that would be detrimentally affected by what the committee seeks to do,” David Paul Horan told Keys Weekly.

“We’re tooling up for litigation with regard to the overall idea of those referendums,” he said. If and when the electorate passes the referendums, the legal challenges can — and likely will — begin, Horan said.

“As far as the Walsh-owned property, which includes Pier B, they get a considerable amount of income from cruise ships, both from fees paid by the cruise lines, and from passengers walking past their retail shops there,” Darren Horan said. “If they’re deprived of income from the use of that dock, the city would have to compensate them for the highest and best use of the property and I don’t think the city can afford to strike a check for that amount. And the argument that private property can be regulated just because public property is regulated doesn’t hold weight.”

The contentious issue will continue to prompt debate from both sides until the November election. Information from the Key West Chamber of Commerce is at keywestchamber.org and from the Key West Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships is at safercleanerships.com.

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