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Florida Keys Residents Cross State To Make Their Case On Ports Bill

An image of two cruise ships docked at Key West
Nancy Klingener
In 2019, almost a million people visited Key West by cruise ship — but an industry study said they contributed less than 10 percent of visitor spending.

More than 20 people made the 600-mile journey from the Keys to the other end of the state Wednesday.

In Tallahassee, they attended a Florida Senate committee hearing considering a bill that would overturn Key West's limits on cruise ships. Voters approved three amendments to the city charter last November that would limit the number of people and size of ships that could come to the island.

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Most of them were against the bill and included many who said the water quality in the area had improved in the year since cruise ships stopped sailing.

Nathaniel Linville runs a tackle shop in Key West — and holds the world record for catching tarpon on fly.

"Business is up. The fishing is great. At a ground level, I think this discussion, to me, is about whether or not Key West should be in charge of its own future," he said.

Attorney Michael Halpern spoke in favor of the bill. He said he was representing Key West museums like the Little White House, the Mel Fisher Museum and the Hemingway House that have all suffered without cruise ship traffic and would suffer more if it resumed under the new limits.

He says the intent wasn't to protect the environment or prevent infectious disease.

"The true reason was that they wanted more upscale people coming into this city," Halpern said.

And he said the newest ships, which wouldn't meet the city's new limit, are far more environmentally friendly.

"There are no cleaner, safer cruise ships because the initiative banned the cleanest, safest cruise ships from coming into Key West," he said.

Many of the people who spoke against the bill say it's especially egregious because it overturns a local referendum. The limits on cruise ship traffic to Key West were approved by more than 60% of voters.

"What's being proposed here today is basically stomping on the most sacred part of our democracy," said Tony Yaniz, a former Key West city commissioner. "And here's this — it's a cautionary tale. Today it's Key West. Tomorrow, this might come right back and bite you in the ass."

The bill has been amended in the Senate so it only applies to ports within an area of “critical state concern." That means it would only apply to Key West.

The Senate Rules Committee approved the bill by a vote of 12-5.


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Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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