Cruising tourists in Mallory Square.

Cruising tourists in Mallory Square.

Key West commissioners on Monday directed their attorney to draft ordinances limiting local cruise ship operations, mirroring city voter-approved measures recently overturned by state lawmakers.

During a special meeting Monday evening, commissioners said that, despite the threat of lawsuits and further preemptive legislation, they had to support the 2020 referendums. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, backers pushed the measures as a way to protect area waters and coral reefs surrounding the tourism-dependent community.

“We’ve got 63 percent of our voting population that said enough is enough. We have to have their backs,” Commissioner Jimmy Weekley said. “We have to stand here and find a way in which we can defend that referendum

question that was passed. And we've got to tell the state of Florida, you can preempt this all you want, we're going to keep coming back with ordinances or resolutions in a way that we can get what our constituents want.”

With cruise ships set to return to the state’s southern-most port in September following more than a year-long shutdown due to the pandemic, Key West City Attorney Shawn Smith said the new state law would allow the commission to implement the will of voters through ordinances.

Smith said his interpretation of the law is based upon a bill signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis, which tossed out the results of three November 2020 Key West referendums. The measures limited the size of ships using the Port of Key West and the number of passengers allowed to disembark daily.

But Smith also advised commissioners that ordinances restricting cruise ship activity, which the commission is expected to consider in August, could result in lawsuits from negatively impacted businesses --- which the city likely would have faced without the new state law --- and spark more state legislation next year.

“What was passed by the voters is one thing. What is sufficient for you to pass an ordinance is something different,” Smith said.

The Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships, which sponsored the 2020 measures, garnered the support of city commissioners before a crowd that overwhelmingly supported the cruise ship restrictions during Monday's meeting.

The committee's backers argued that the new law --- tucked into a contentious transportation bill as the legislative session drew to a close in late April --- only applies to ballot measures and doesn’t prevent port authorities from regulating their facilities.

One issue the city will have to deal with is Pier B, a private cruise port which has operated for the past three decades under a contract that annually provides 25 percent of its net revenue to Key West. The city estimates that it receives about $1.5 million a year from Pier B, which would put the company’s annual gross proceeds around $6 million a year.

DeSantis’ political committee received nearly $1 million in donations from companies owned by Mark Walsh, the owner of Pier B Development, before the 2021 legislative session.

Commissioner Samuel Kaufman said he wants to scrutinize a draft ordinance to determine its potential impacts.

“I think all the commissioners would like to see an ordinance in place if it's enacted within and permissible by law, and if it will hold up to court scrutiny,” Kaufman said, adding that the commission was unable Monday evening to make a determination about how to move forward. “All of this is hypothetical until we see a drafted ordinance. So, I'm all for it. I'm all for review. I'm all for analysis.”

Asked what it would take to end the city’s contract with Pier B Development, which runs into 2025, Smith replied, “We pay.”

“I think Pier B sues us. I don't think it's a threat. I think it's legitimate,” Smith said. “I think it's a breach of contract claim and an interstate commerce claim.”

Bart Smith, representing Pier B Development, told the commission that the company invested millions of dollars into building and strengthening its facilities.

“We hope and expect the city to continue to honor the agreement,” he said.

Several residents called the 2020 referendum a compromise, noting they would have favored more severe restrictions.

Arlo Haskell, treasurer of the committee that backed the 2020 measures, called on commissioners to approve ordinances that prohibit cruise ships carrying more than 1,300 people, limit disembarkations to 1,500 a day, and give priority to cruise ships based upon environmental and public health records.

“There should be no special carve outs and no exemptions,” Haskell said. “Allowing a single pier to continue to operate without limits would allow for 365 large cruise ships a year, one each and every day. This would barely be an improvement from the status quo, and is certainly not the change that the people of Key West have asked for.”

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