Preempted again: Key West clean-water referenda may sink under cruise-ship legislation sent to governor

By: - April 29, 2021 7:53 pm

Key West voters adopted three referenda to curtail cruise-ship traffic, but the FL Legislature has voted to strike those down. Credit: Florida Ports Council

Clean-water referenda approved by Key West voters in November will be overturned under cruise-ship-friendly legislation approved in the Florida House and Senate and sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis for final approval.

Key West Mayor Teri Johnston told the Phoenix citizens there are counting on the governor to veto the legislation.

“The person on the white horse right now is Gov. DeSantis,” Mayor Johnston said, citing the governor’s claim to be an environmental champion.

“The people making this legislation haven’t been here. They have no idea how important the environment of the Keys is to us and our economy,” Johnston said.

The new legislation overturns three Key West referenda. One prevents cruise ships with a capacity of more than 1,300 people from docking in the city. The second limits the number of cruise passengers who can disembark each day to a total of 1,500. The third says cruise lines with good environmental and health safety records get to disembark first. Voters approved all three by margins of 60 to 80 percent.

Johnston said water quality in the Keys has dramatically improved since the large ships were halted and that the economy had not suffered.

However, cruise ship operators were not happy to lose a port of call very popular with their passengers. While the cruise ship industry is worth billions, its benefit to Key West is only 7 percent of the city’s revenue, Johnston said.

The new legislation, which drew scores of Key West citizens to the capital to testify in opposition, failed as a pair of stand-alone bills. As a last resort, it was tacked onto a broad transportation bill late Wednesday and then approved in both chambers.

It preempts Florida’s 15 seaports from adopting local regulations over commerce, including cruise ship traffic.

If signed into law, the legislation will allow giant cruise ships to again ply the waters of the Keys and disembark unlimited numbers of passengers in Key West.

This represents at least the second time in recent years that the Legislature has acted to strike down rules adopted by Key West to protect its local waters. Last session, lawmakers struck down the city’s ban on specific sunscreens that pollute local waters with ingredients that kill corals.

Johnston said the seaports preemption bill serves the international cruise-ship industry over the interests of Key West, which is one of only four Florida regions designated as Areas of Critical State Concern.

The Miami Herald reported on Monday that 11 companies owned by Mark Walsh, owner of the company that runs the Pier B cruise ship dock behind Margaritaville Key West Resort and Marina, have donated nearly $1 million to the Friends of Ron DeSantis political committee backing the governor’s re-election effort.

A Senate analysis of the bills said nearly 17 million passengers moved through Florida’s seaports pre-COVID.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

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. Contact her at [email protected]