Key West Cruising Restrictions Vetoed by Florida Governor

Key West voters, voted to restrict cruise ships to Key West. This week, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill that would make that vote null and void.

In November, the voters voted to ban ships that carry more than 1,300 people from docking, and prioritize ships based on their health and environmental records. Key West voters had overwhelmingly approved these measures last November. 

63% of Key West citizens voted in favor of limiting daily cruise ship visitors to 1,500. About 60% said yes to prohibiting larger ships, and over 80% of voters agreed that the best cruise line corporate citizens should get the first pick of docking assignments.

Senate transportation bill (SB 1194) included language that would void measures passed by the Key West citizens that would cap the number of cruise passengers allowed ashore daily. The voters voted to ban ships that carry more than 1,300 people from docking, and prioritize ships based on their health and environmental records. Key West voters had overwhelmingly approved these measures last November.

Republican Senator Jim Boyd of Bradenton sought to overturn the will of the people of Key Westresults with legislation he introduced that would not allow local governments to regulate Florida seaport commerce. The bill all but died in the Florida House in April. Boyd then introduced it as an amendment to a 38-page unrelated state Senate transportation bill (SB 1194) that passed both the Senate and House and says that “any local ballot initiative or referendum may not restrict maritime commerce” at any one of Florida’s 15 deep-water ports. The amendment also voids any preexisting referendum, thus nullifying the decision of Key West voters.

Defenders of the bill to overturn the Key West vote said that it is elitist and would only allow in smaller ships that cost more. Florida Keys News reported that Rep. Spencer Roach, a Republican from North Fort Myers and the House sponsor of the bill, defended the amendment and said the referendum was backed by “a cabal of wealthy landowners in Key West that don’t want what they consider cruise ship riffraff walking down their pier.”

Voters in Key West, including Mayor Teri Johnston, had held out hope that the governor would veto SB 1194.

“The people making this legislation haven’t been here,” said Mayor Johnston in an interview with the Florida Phoenix. “They have no idea how important the environment of the Keys is to us and our economy.” Neither Boyd nor Roach represent the Florida Keys.

More specifically, the law states: “This pertains to ‘vessel type, size, number or capacity,’ ‘number, origin, nationality, embarkation or disembarkation of passengers or crew or their entry into this state or any local jurisdiction’ and ‘environmental or health records of a particular vessel or vessel line.’”

That wording basically overturns all of the ballot initiatives approved by a majority of Key West voters.

Arlo Haskell, an author and Key West native who led the fight to restrict cruise ships in the island port, had held out some hope that Governor DeSantis would veto the bill. 

“If this bill is signed, it’s overthrowing the results of a free and fair election,” Haskell told WJCT Public Media. “And it would be inviting a water quality disaster to return to the Florida Keys and the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary.

Along with his colleagues at the Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships, Haskell argued that with a local population of just 25,000 and a unique and fragile natural setting, welcoming up to 6,000 cruise visitors a day is simply too much. The port is located amidst the third-largest barrier reef in the world, and ships pass through a marine preserve to access the harbor. 

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“We’re not against the cruise industry. We’re just saying: ‘Send us your smaller ships.’ Those big ships have a place, but it’s not here. And I wonder why cruise lines would want to take their ships where they’re not wanted.

But not everyone in Key West opposes the large cruise ships, which provide work and revenue for harbor pilots, private dock owners, bars, restaurants, and souvenir shops.

The day after the November vote, city manager Greg Veliz told local newspaper Keys Weekly that lawsuits and other challenges were sure to follow. He said that if the laws as voted were to be enacted, cruise lines might just stop sending ships to Key West altogether, regardless of size.

The Governor signing the bill ensures cruise ships will continue to use Key West as a port. In 2019, 964,795 cruise passengers passed through Key West. Obviously a large part of the areas economy. Cruising s ramping up again following a hiatus that lasted over a year.

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