© 2022 WLRN
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Local News

Federal Judge Dismisses Challenge To Key West Cruise Ship Ballot Questions

a sign in favor of charter amendments to limit the size and passengers from cruise ships in key west
Nancy Klingener
A challenge to three proposed city charter amendments that would cut back on cruise ship traffic to Key West was dismissed in federal court Wednesday.

Key West voters will decide whether to limit the number of people getting off cruise ships to 1,500 a day. They could also vote to limit the capacity of ships that can call at the island to 1,300 people. And they'll decide whether to prioritize ships by their environmental and health safety records.

The city doesn't currently have those kinds of limits. Nearly 1 million visitors arrived by cruise ship last year.

WLRN is committed to providing South Florida with trusted news and information. In these uncertain times, our mission is more vital than ever. Your support makes it possible. Please donate today. Thank you.

Harbor pilots who guide the big ships into port and the owners of Pier B, the primary cruise ship berth, sued in federal court to try and take the amendments off the ballot.

The Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships gathered the petitions that got the proposed charter amendments on the ballot. They were a defendant in the lawsuit, along with the city of Key West and the Monroe County Supervisor of Elections.

They are trying to protect Key West's "fragile" health care system, said attorney Peter Homer.

"The reality is that cruise lines themselves are a vector that have a long history, particularly the largest ships, of carrying all kinds of viral diseases," he said. "Legionnaires Disease, they've had outbreaks on those. Obviously COVID-19 has been a big issue. Norovirus, you read about that all the time in the paper, with ships having outbreaks of that."

The city of Key West doesn't have the authority to set those limits, said attorney Bruce Rogow, representing the harbor pilots.

"People go on a cruise so they can get off the boat. One of these provisions limits the number of people, of all the cruise ships that are there, that can get off the boat," he said. "This is interference with the fundamentals of maritime commerce."

An attorney for the group that gathered signatures to put the proposed charter amendments on the ballot said the vote should go forward — especially since no cruise ships are sailing from the U.S. right now and they won't restart until late October at the earliest.

"There's no assurance what cruise lines come back to Key West, what their operations are going to look like, whether they'll even come back to Key West ... how frequent that would be, what kind of ships they would use," Homer said.

Rogow said the current status of the cruise industry doesn't matter, since the new rules would apply no matter what happens.

"This is not about wondering about whether the cruise ships will come," he said. "This poses the fact that the cruise ships would be under the foot of Key West in a way that the maritime supremacy clause prohibits."

Senior U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King dismissed the suit, saying he did not have jurisdiction to rule on amendments that haven't been approved by the voters.

If the referendum questions fail, "it may never come up that there's any question about any of this," he said. "All that can yet be decided after, the three initiatives, we get a vote on that."

King said he wanted to be clear that "I'm trying not to address the merits of the claims" by the harbor pilots and Pier B owners.

"They don't necessarily fail," he said. "They just fail today."

The questions will go before Key West voters Nov. 3.