Cruise ships return to Key West in November 2021 after being gone for more than a year during the COVID pandemic. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

Key West could cancel cruise ships at the two piers it controls, capitulate to their continued use of the privately operated Pier B and seek possible concessions from Pier B’s operators with regard to ship size, capacity and frequency.

It’s an outcome many Key West residents have suggested and expected for more than a year, in light of the anticipated lawsuits that would stem from restricting private-sector business. But it wasn’t mentioned officially until Tuesday’s city commission meeting, when Key West’s cruise ship debate continued with fruitful discussions, but no decisions.

The Key West Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships, which led the movement to reduce cruise ships in Key West, drafted a resolution that was added to Tuesday’s agenda the day before the meeting, but then withdrawn at the request of SCS for revisions. At least two community members also opposed the late timing of the resolution that did not give the public ample time to review it. 

That resolution would prohibit the city from allowing any cruise ship activity at the piers it controls, Mallory Pier and the Outer Mole, which the city leases from the Navy.

Under that proposal, Key West would forgo all cruise ship visits and revenues at its two piers, including any smaller ships that meet the voter-approved criteria, in order to avoid “two-ship days” that would see a large ship at Pier B and a smaller ship at Mallory. 

“We’ve heard again and again that the city can do whatever it wants with its two piers, but it cannot dictate how Pier B operates its business,” Arlo Haskell, treasurer of Safer Cleaner Ships, said at the meeting. “So if the city can’t dictate terms of business operations at Pier B, then the city just simply cannot operate — so long as a ship with 2,000 passengers is at Pier B, on that date, you can’t have any passengers at any city property without overflowing the 1,500-person limit approved by voters. ….I think we all know we’re still going to see the very large ships at Pier B.”

Commissioners also withdrew the long-awaited cruise ship ordinance, drafted by outside attorney Ed Pozzuoli and the Tripp Scott Law Firm, from Tuesday’s agenda following public outcry about its failure to address the voter-approved ship size and capacity limits.

Pozzuoli explained on Tuesday that the draft ordinance was not designed to address the limits desired by supporters of Safer Cleaner Ships. Such restrictions can’t be imposed on the privately operated Pier B by an ordinance, but rather by amending the existing contract between the city and Pier B.

“This is a two-piece process,” Pozzuoli said. “We’ve laid out a base ordinance that gets the city involved in environmental regulation for cruise ships, and then we began discussions with Pier B to amend its agreement with the city.” Those discussions have included the topics of ship size, frequency, black-out dates and scheduling to possibly include longer, nighttime or overnight visits to enable cruise ship passengers to patronize more and different businesses in town.

Pozzuoli and his team have been discussing potential changes with Pier B owner Mark Walsh. Formal mediation will occur March 1 among the city, Pier B and Safer Cleaner Ships, hopefully to negotiate changes to the 20+-year agreement that currently authorizes Pier B to welcome seven cruise ships a week while giving the city 25% of its ship revenues.

Pozzuoli also emphasized that the current agreement actually encourages Pier B to “use its best efforts to solicit and book cruise ships so as to maximize disembarkation fee revenue while emphasizing upper market cruise ship tourism.”

The ordinance that Pozzuoli’s team did draft outlines environmental regulations and penalties for cruise ships that’s based on similar laws in other port cities.

Commissioners withdrew that ordinance Tuesday, saying they want it to come closer to the voter-approved limits, perhaps as a result of the March 1 mediation.

Commissioner Sam Kaufman has also repeatedly emphasized his desire for a water quality testing program that could perhaps be included in the ordinance.

Commissioner Jimmy Weekley also wants the March 1 mediation process to include the possibility of Pier B allowing public access to Admiral’s Cut. The slice of water separates Pier B and its adjacent Opal Key Resort from the city-owned Truman Waterfront. A long-desired bridge over Admiral’s Cut would allow unfettered pedestrian access from the city’s Mallory Square to Truman Waterfront Park.

The city commission — and the public — will hear an update from the mediation the evening of March 1 at the regularly scheduled commission meeting, City Attorney Shawn Smith said. He has also suggested that the city call a special meeting on March 10 to finalize the cruise ship measures. 

The mediation with Judge Sandra Taylor will include representatives of Pier B, the city and SCS.

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.