Key West voters, silenced by the state, want cruise restrictions
For years, residents of Key West have struggled to gain some control over the growing number of cruise ships that dock there. Who can blame them? Cruise traffic to the southernmost city in the United States has increased enormously over the past decade, while the island has remained as small as it has ever been, about seven square miles of lush greenery. surrounded by turquoise waters.
Their effort — to preserve the very things that make the island special — has landed little Key West smack in the middle of Florida’s larger struggle for local control. And even though it seemed last year that the power of the state was taking over, the Key Westers have just regained at least some of their power. Participatory democracy worked. Unfortunately, this is no longer a given in this country.
The wishes of the inhabitants have been clear for years. They want to limit cruise ships to a livable level. In 2013, Key West voters rejected a proposal to authorize a study that could have led to the expansion of ports for larger vessels. In 2020, they approved three citizens’ initiatives to limit the size of cruise ships and the number of passengers.
They were entirely reasonable measures, and yet the following year the state, under the guise of economic freedom, passed legislation narrowly targeting the three Key West measures, essentially nullifying the 2020 vote and pre-empting the internal regime. It was an outrageous overreach by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican legislature — and it wasn’t the only one along those lines. By then, however, the cruise had stopped due to the pandemic, so the Key West dispute was dormant.
Now cruises are returning, and so is the conflict over what to do about them. Last month, Key West city commissioners, trying to uphold the will of voters despite the state’s contempt for the democratic process, voted unanimously to close the city’s two public docks to nearly all ships. This approach was left open to them because the commission controls the use of the city’s ports. This decision was a victory for voters and left only Pier B private for large cruise ships.
Then the Commissioners, fortunately, did the right thing again. They refused a proposal which at first glance seemed to offer restrictions on cruise ships at Pier B, but actually had the potential to increase both visitors and ship size. In other words, the opposite of what voters want.
There were some aspects of the proposal that didn’t sound bad. No more than 349 cruises could dock, on average, in a year, and there would be days when no ships could arrive (New Year’s Day and Thanksgiving Day, for example). Compared to the days when more than one ship came to town, this seemed like a win.
But the number of passengers has been capped at an average of 3,700 per day, which represents nearly 1.3 million potential cruise passengers per year. That’s more than the highest number of ship passengers the island has ever visited – around a million, last year before the pandemic, according to local restrictions advocates – and it’s far more than eligible voters in 2020, when they did not specify more than 1,500 passengers arriving per day for an annual total of approximately 547,000.
And then there was the size of the ships – up to 1,100 feet long, depending on the proposal. Although not the biggest ships in the world, they are bigger than the city has ever had before. And getting them to Pier B would also have required what advocates have called a gift of a public good: 95 feet of submerged land, which Pier B would have needed to moor ships of that size. That alone should have been a deciding factor.
There are other arguments for reducing cruise ships in Key West, including environmental arguments. Cruise ships, with their deep hulls and giant propellers, stir up silt in the harbor and create turbidity or cloudiness in the water. Last year, a Florida International University researcher found that water quality had improved during the cruise stop. It’s common sense, of course.
And despite the dire predictions of those who had opposed any restrictions on ships or passengers coming to Key West, the island’s economy did not collapse during this time. He thrived.
A packed committee meeting on Tuesday night featured hours of comments from residents, with many calling on the commissioners to not only uphold their 2020 vote, but also democracy itself. They continue to be angry – and we join them – that the Governor and the Legislature blithely snuffed out their votes with a bill ostensibly intended to help businesses and thwart voters.
Outraged representatives of Pier B owners insisted the city was getting a good deal. Attorney Bart Smith told commissioners that Pier B negotiated “in good faith” and made concessions “in favor of the city”. Perhaps. What we do know for certain, however, is that companies owned by Mark Walshthe Delray Beach businessman who owns Pier B Development, gave $995,000 to Friends of Ron DeSantis, the governor-led policy.
In the end, the proposal was rejected, 5-2.
Without the new deal, a 1994 contract — which the city, surprisingly, signed in perpetuity with Pier B — remains in effect. It is true that the contract, as noted by representatives of Pier B, does not limit the number of ships or passengers. This could backfire on citizens who want to see cruise traffic restricted.
But there is another important point that surfaced during this discussion: the current jetty, built in 1999, is outside the area authorized by the 1994 agreement, according to a legal note drafted by lawyers from the Key West Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships, a non-profit organization. advocacy group. If a legal challenge were to succeed, this never-ending contract with Pier B might have an end after all. This may send the company back to the negotiating table.
You could argue that the people of Key West didn’t get a huge victory; they just avoided something bad. But there was something much larger at stake: the workings of democracy. Florida leaders have tried to silence the voice of the people. The Key West commissioners made sure they were heard.
This is a real — and immeasurable — victory for all of us.
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