Opponents of large cruise ships protest the arrival of such a ship at the privately owned Pier B in February 2022. LARRY BLACKBURN/Keys Weekly

Key West’s great cruise ship debate is far from over, and in fact exploded like a firework on July 1, when state officials agreed to expand by 55,000 square feet the area of water that the privately owned Pier B leases from the state to accommodate large cruise ships.

Since February 2022, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection had received “multiple complaints alleging that cruise ships are being periodically moored partially outside of the (area of water that Pier B leases from the state). Information, including photos, submitted with the complaints indicates potential non-compliance with the lease,” states a Temporary Use Agreement that expands the boundaries of Pier B’s lease with the state DEP.

The Key West Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships, which for years has led the opposition to large cruise ships in Key West, also opposes the process by which the boundaries were expanded for Pier B.

“So, Pier B has been operating under a lease with the state Department of Environmental Protection and has been in violation of that by bringing in ships that exceed the lease boundaries,” Arlo Haskell, treasurer of Safer Cleaner Ships, told the Keys Weekly on July 5. “DEP’s response, instead of making Pier B come into compliance with the rules of the lease, is just changing the rules. It’s basically now a larger body of water that Pier B is allowed to use for cruise ships.”

Haskell likened the July 1 Temporary Use Agreement to a different violation. “It’s as if I committed a bank robbery, and instead of arresting me, the authorities instead decided to make bank robbery legal,” Haskell said. “It’s frustrating. DEP is allegedly focused on protecting the environment, but we haven’t seen that. DEP has failed to achieve its mission and advance the public trust. They’ve never sent an inspector down and have never asked any follow-up questions with regard to our complaints about lease violations or potential water quality violations.”

When reached by the Keys Weekly for comment, DEP spokeswoman Alexandra Kuchta said, “The department recognizes that the waterward edge of the original lease boundary was established years before the larger ships were calling to the port, and it has been working with Pier B Development Corporation (the lessee) to bring the site into compliance. While a long-term solution is sought, DEP has issued Pier B a year-long TUA, temporarily expanding the lease boundaries to the north and west to ensure ships are not obstructing the entrance to Truman Harbor. DEP will continue to monitor the situation and will address any activities that cause impacts to environmental resources or water quality through our enforcement process.”

When asked if he thinks the recent expansion of Pier B’s lease is, in part, a retaliatory response to the city of Key West’s and Safer Cleaner Ships’ refusal in April to accept some voluntary limitations offered by Pier B and owner Mark Walsh, Haskell said, “I think that’s right. As Commissioner Jimmy Weekley said, ‘They’re not a good neighbor.’ They know how the community voted and they don’t care what the community wants.”

In April, Pier B owner Mark Walsh had offered to abide by some blackout dates when no ships would dock at Pier B. He also offered to donate $1 per cruise ship passenger to a coral reef restoration program. But the city, with the agreement of Safer Cleaner Ships, refused those limitations. Commissioners Clayton Lopez and Billy Wardlow were in favor of approving the new proposed limitations, reminding their colleagues that Pier B’s current contract with the city contains no limits on ship size or blackout dates. Pier B can bring in up to seven ships per week of any size, including more than one ship per day, according to the existing agreement. 

Pier B’s water lease with the state is the only thing that restricted the size of cruise ships. 

That lease is now being widened by 50 feet for the entire 1,000-foot length of the lease area, and it’s been lengthened by another 50 feet, Haskell said.

“As we’ve been filing complaints about ships exceeding the boundaries of Pier B’s lease with the state, we’ve asked DEP to hold public workshops to ensure the lease is in the public’s best interest. We certainly thought there’d be more of a public process before this lease area was expanded by 55,000 square feet,” Haskell told the Keys Weekly. 

Mark Walsh’s representatives declined to comment at this time.

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.