The continuing cruise ship debate will take center stage at Tuesday’s city commission meeting, given recent claims by cruise ship opponents that the city never authorized cruise operations at the modern-day Pier B — and a strongly worded rebuttal from Pier B’s owner, Mark Walsh.

When they meet at 5 p.m., Tuesday, April 5, city commissioners will consider a revised agreement with the owners of Pier B, who have agreed to honor five black-out dates per year with no ships, and to set some limits on the size and number of ships that visit the pier annually. 

The Key West Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships (SCS) has scoffed at the proposed limits, saying they would allow more and bigger ships than the pier has ever hosted. Pier B’s owners — and the city’s two attorneys — contend that Pier B’s longstanding contract with the city allows seven ships of unlimited size each week. Thus, the city can’t impose limits where none previously existed without the voluntary consent of Pier B’s owners.

Following its public opposition to the proposed new agreement, Safer Cleaner Ships asserted in a March 31 legal memo that the agreement does not apply to the modern-day Pier B, which was built in 1994, and expanded in 1999. “Modern Pier B is entirely outside the authorized area of the 1994 agreement with the city. Thus, the City did not authorize or agree to cruise port operations at this new site,” states the memo that was written by attorneys Linda Wheeler and Ralf Brookes and attached to Tuesday’s meeting agenda.

Pier B owner Mark Walsh begs to differ. On Monday, April 4, Walsh submitted a 37-page rebuttal that also was added to the agenda. 

In his response, Walsh calls Safer Cleaner Ships’ claim, “a gross misrepresentation of the facts and an unfair and misleading assertion given that the available public records contain unequivocal proof” that “in 1999, the City (a) authorized and supported the Pier B expansion; (b) granted a building permit for the Pier B expansion; (c) issued a certificate of occupancy for the Pier B expansion and (d) represented to the state of Florida that the expansion of Pier B was approved and authorized by the city….” 

His response includes copies of the referenced documents, including a January 1999 letter to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection from then-assistant city manager John Jones that states, “City staff has reviewed the Pier B development plans and have no objections to the present plans….Pier B expansion improvement will offer a safer berth for cruise ships and better convenience for visitors.”

In a letter preceding the historical documents, Walsh writes to city officials, “ … The city certainly and expressly authorized the Pier B expansion and has benefited greatly from its operation. … The city attorney and outside counsel recognize that Pier B (a) has no limit on the size of ships; (b) can bring in more than one cruise ship a day; (c) could dock cruise ships 364 days each year, and (d) could disembark an unlimited number of passengers per day. Any suggestion that Pier B needs the proposed settlement agreement to operate its cruise port is factually absurd and legally untenable.”

In response to Walsh’s submission, Arlo Haskell, treasurer of Safer Cleaner Ships, told the Keys Weekly on Monday night, “What was notably absent from Walsh’s letter was any attorney willing to put their name on it. These are recycled arguments from previously failed lawsuits. Our record of knocking down flimsy legal arguments from Pier B in court speaks for itself.”

Commissioner Mary Lou Hoover responded to SCS’ recent legal claims that cruise ship operations at Pier B were not authorized by the city in an email that SCS included in its Monday, April 4 electronic newsletter. In her email, Hoover tells SCS its legal memo contains “nothing new,” and that the city’s approval of the Pier B expansion were part of the permitting process. “While I understand you don’t want any cruise ships coming to Key West, it is still my belief that the city has no control over Pier B and its operations,” Hoover writes. “Food for thought. If SCS believed that the agreement between Pier B and the city was invalid or void, why go through all the trouble and expense of three referendums? Why not just have a judge set aside the agreement? And if the agreement never existed, why did the city take money from Pier B to the tune of $25 million? I have tallied your request to me as a Vote No on item 21.”

In other news…

The commission will consider…

  • A referendum for voters to approve a 99-year lease of College Road property to enable the construction of more than 100 units of affordable housing at Garden View Apartments. 
  • Changes to Fantasy Fest, the city’s biggest annual event, in an effort to “transform the event into a positive, clean festival enjoyed by residents and visitors.”
  •  A presentation on water quality monitoring by Patrick Rice, chief research and science officer at The College of the Florida Keys. 
  • A development plan for the construction of the new Frederick Douglass Community Center at 111 Olivia St. 

The city commission meets at 5 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 1400 White St.  The complete agenda is available at cityofkeywest-fl.gov.

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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.