City of Key West plans to resist state interference in local votes to limit cruise ships

By: - July 9, 2021 3:09 pm

Royal Caribbean’s Grandeur of the Sea, leaving the Port of Key West. Credit: Steve Apps

Following the enactment of a state law striking down Key West’s voter-approved limits on cruise ships, city officials and residents will meet Monday to decide how to fight back.

Key West voters adopted three referenda last November to cut back on cruise ship traffic in their port and the number of passengers that come ashore there. The referenda were designed to protect water quality and to be selective about the kinds of ships that visit the international tourist destination.

Republican-sponsored legislation to overturn the referenda by dictating that only the state can regulate cruise ships was approved in April over the objections of Democrats in the House and Senate and scores of citizens who traveled to the capital city to testify against it.

The preemption bills — Senate Bill 426 and House Bill 267, sponsored by Sen. Jim Boyd, representing parts of Manatee and Hillsborough counties, and Reps. Spencer Roach of Lee County and Tyler Sirois of Brevard County —  failed as stand-alone measures. Late in the legislative session, their sponsors tacked them to an expansive transportation bill approved in both chambers.

Key West Mayor Teri Johnston urged Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto the measure, citing his claim to be an environment-friendly governor. But the governor signed the transportation bill, including the preemption of Key West’s referenda, on June 29 along with 93 other bills, as announced by his office.

On Monday, the Key West City Commission will deliberate on legal options.

“I anticipate a discussion and direction to senior staff to draft an ordinance or resolution supporting the referendum criteria for the ports the city has control over,” Mayor Johnston told the Phoenix.

Johnston and the citizens who testified against the preemption bill in the legislative session said their limits on cruise ships quickly led to cleaner water — which is good for business there — and less congestion on the island. Johnston said only 7 percent of city revenue comes from cruise-ship traffic, while fishing, diving and other water sports dependent on water quality are vital economic drivers.

Citizens testified that state government should not strip local government of authority to make such decisions. And they noted the irony of state lawmakers scuttling local efforts to protect the environment of Key West despite its designation as one of just four Areas of Critical State Concern.

The overturned referenda did three things: prevent docking by ships with a capacity of more than 1,300 people; limit to 1,500 the number of passengers who can disembark each day; and give preference to cruise lines with good environmental and health safety records. Voters approved all three by margins of 60 to 80 percent.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.