Port of Key West

Port of Key West

Key West residents will have a chance next week to say how the island community should respond after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation late Tuesday that overturned a local vote limiting cruise ship operations at the city’s port.

The City Commission quickly scheduled a special meeting for July 6 after DeSantis signed a contentious transportation bill (SB 1194) that included targeting the Key West vote. The new law prohibits local ballot initiatives that restrict maritime commerce involving such things as vessel sizes and points of origin.

Key West voters in November approved three ballot initiatives that combined to limit the sizes of cruise ships and the number of passengers allowed to visit the city daily. Each referendum drew at least 60 percent support.

Arlo Haskell, treasurer of the Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships, which pushed the referendums, said his group is exploring its options, which could include going to court.

Rep. Jim Mooney, an Islamorada Republican who represents the Keys, argued against the proposal, contending cruise ships cause water turbidity that is bad for fishing and the ecosystem.

The Florida Harbor Pilots Association, which backed the law, said it is critical that local ballot initiatives don’t restrict commerce in ports.

“Maritime commerce has a wide-ranging impact on the lives of Floridians across the state, allowing for the free flow of goods and services to all regions --- not just the locality of a given port,” association President Ben Borgie said in a statement. “Given that statewide importance, it is paramount that maritime commerce is not restricted or regulated via local ballot initiatives.”

Roach also argued on the House floor that the state has a legal responsibility to keep ports open for business.

The Florida Ports Council opposed earlier versions of the legislation as being too broad. But it said in a news release Wednesday that ports will “remain in local control” under the bill DeSantis signed.

“The pandemic has proven just how important Florida’s local seaports are to Florida’s economy. With thousands of cruise-related employees still sidelined, and cruise ships still unable to sail, it’s vital that local seaports are not further restricted in their ability to conduct business and create economic development opportunities,” Florida Ports Council President and CEO Michael Rubin said.

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