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Scaled-Back Bill Targets Florida Port Regulations

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Nancy Klingener
/
WLRN

TALLAHASSEE --- Most seaports in the state were removed Wednesday from legislation that seeks to block local governments from enacting rules on port operations, an issue stemming from a vote last year in Key West that placed limits on cruise ships.

The House Tourism, Infrastructure & Energy Subcommittee voted 12-6 to approve a revised measure (HB 267) that would only block local regulations at municipal-run ports in Pensacola, Panama City, Key West and St. Petersburg.

In the decision to remove other ports from the bill, Rep. Rick Roth, a West Palm Beach Republican whose district is just north of the Port of Palm Beach, said lawmakers were trying to solve the issue “more with a scalpel than with a sledgehammer.”

Port of Pensacola Director Amy Miller warned that prohibiting a port governing body or city council from a say on types of cargo could endanger communities.

“At the port of Pensacola, for example, we generally don't allow vessels that carry flammable or explosive cargoes for one simple reason, as remote as the possibility of a fire or explosion might be, that's just not a risk we’re willing to take, given our port’s location in the middle of downtown Pensacola’s active and vibrant urban core,” Miller said. “Under this legislation, we would be violating state law if we refuse to accept such vessels.”

The bill is one of this legislative session’s highest-profile measures that would “preempt” local authority. It is being pushed after Key West voters last year approved limiting the size and makeup of cruise ships and the number of passengers that could daily visit the city.

Bill sponsor Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, said the federal government has the primary responsibility for maritime operations. He also said fighting the Key West vote in court would be expensive, and the state has a federal responsibility to remain open for business.

“We are not doing anything to take away the authority or the ability of these port authorities to manage their ports any differently than they're doing now,” Roach said.

“What we are saying is Florida has to honor their commitment under the (U.S.) Constitution to not restrict people and commerce from entering this port,” Roach continued. “We can't simply have a group of 10,000 people closing down the Port of Key West and holding the state of Florida hostage to $90 million in general revenue that would come in.”

The bill, which would cover existing restrictions, would apply to issues such as the sizes and types of vessels, the sources or types of cargo and the numbers, origins or nationalities of passengers.

Florida has 15 deepwater seaports, with about half created as special districts and the rest organized within city or county governments, according to a House staff analysis.

The House bill as initially proposed would have applied to local regulations at all 15 ports. After the panel removed most of the ports from the bill Wednesday, the Florida Association of Counties withdrew its opposition.

Caribe Nautical Services Chairman John Wells, a leading opponent of the Key West vote, said the city’s referendum hurts the cruise industry. Of 287 reservations in place for 2022 cruises, only 18 ships would meet the size criteria, he said.

Wells added that the intent of the vote was to attract wealthier cruise-ship passengers who would spend more money while off the ships.

“I call that economic discrimination,” Wells told the House panel. “People that save up and want to take a vacation, take their families, can no longer include Key West on the itinerary. And that's a big impact. Key West was never about that. Florida's never been about that.”

Josh Aubuchon, representing the recently formed group Florida Ports for Economic Independence, said Key West voters decided to change the business model of the port to protect their waters and keep the character of the island “unique, cool and funky.”

“In four years, the image of the Keys as a destination has been in decline,” Aubuchon said. “In 2019, Fodor's travel magazine put the Keys on the no-do list, warning tourists to avoid the area because of overcrowding, the deterioration of the coral reef, and if you've ever gone out there snorkeling and seeing the coral reefs, it's pretty breathtaking. And all these conditions are being made worse by the large cruise ships.”