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Key West Commission Tells Staff To Create Cruise Ship Limits Like Those Approved By Voters

Fishing guide Will Benson speaks at a rally outside of Key West City Hall before a meeting where commissioners discussed implementing cruise ship limits.
Nancy Klingener
Fishing guide Will Benson, one of the members of the Key West Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships, speaks at a rally outside of Key West City Hall Monday before a meeting where commissioners discussed implementing cruise ship limits.

The Florida Legislature has banned voters from regulating ports, as Key West voters did last November when they approved limits on the cruise ship industry. City commissioners said they want to find a way to implement the will of the voters.

Key West city commissioners took up the subject of cruise ships Monday for the first time since Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that overturned the limits Key West voters approved last November.

The state law bans port regulation by voter initiative but commissioners still have the authority to regulate the city-run port.

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Nathaniel Linville was one of many who asked the commission to reinstate the limits voters added to the city charter — with cruise ships allowed to bring no more than 1,500 people a day, only allowing ships with a maximum capacity of 1,300 people or fewer and prioritizing ships with the best environmental and health safety records.

The three charter amendments passed by a range of 61 to 81%, and all three of them were approved by every precinct in the city.

"The concern that I have as a voter — and as someone who lives here — is, our vote has been taken away from us," said Linville, who owns a local fishing tackle shop.

Listen to the WLRN podcast Tallahassee Takeover episode about Key West: Small Town, Big Target

Some speakers were glad to see the city charter amendments overruled by the state Legislature. Christopher Ellis owns a bike tour company on the island and says banning big ships is elitist and runs counter to the city's official motto of "one human family."

Under the limits, "you can't have Carnival come in, you can't have Royal Caribbean. Which means the essential workers can't take cruise vacations to Key West," he said. "It's ridiculous, this whole thing. You might as well just say our new motto is we are all members of one human family — but some of us are more human than others."

Commissioners told city staff to come back with ordinances that would have the same effect as the charter amendments that voters approved. City Commissioner Jimmy Weekley represents much of Key West's historic district, which is the focus of a lot of the cruise ship visits.

"We've got 63 percent of our voting population that said enough is enough. We have to have their backs," Weekley said. He said he wanted to send a message back to the Legislature in Tallahassee that the city would determine its own fate.

City Attorney Shawn Smith warned commissioners they will likely face legal challenges to any ordinances from the operators of Pier B. That's the city's busiest cruise ship berth — and the only privately-run cruise ship dock in the state. The city collects 25% of the disembarkation fees from that port under an agreement that renews every 10 years unless both parties want to end it, Smith said.

The potential damages from a lawsuit would are "Duck Tours on steroids," Smith said.

In 2005, the city was found liable for $13 million in damages to a company that wanted to run tours of amphibious vehicles but was blocked by the city's agreement with Historic Tours of America, which runs the Conch Train and Old Town Trolley tours. Eventually, the city settled that case for $8 million.

The pier's operator contributed nearly $1 million to Gov. Ron DeSantis' political committee at the start of this year's legislative session — the same session where Key West's cruise ship limits were eventually overturned.

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