Key West Commission pushes back on state preemption, calls for new cruise ordinance

A state law passed this year placed limits on how localities can regulate their seaports.

With cruise ships expected to return to the Port of Key West in September, City Commissioners have called for an ordinance limiting how the vessels may operate in its seaways.

The move, meant to guard the quality of the city’s waters and the health of its nearby coral reefs, may invite lawsuits from affected businesses and challenges by the state, City Attorney Shawn Smith said.

Commissioners Monday directed Smith to draft an ordinance that will put a cap on the size of ships allowed to enter the Port of Key West and the daily number of passengers permitted to disembark onto the city’s docks.

Such limitations track with referendums city voters approved last year. In November, voters OK’d three ballot initiatives that called for barring vessels with 1,300 or more passengers from docking and limiting daily disembarkment to 1,500 people.

The ordinance is expected sometime next month. By then, legal challenges may have already arrived and could clear a path for stricter laws than what are already on the state books, Smith said.

In late June, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law “prohibiting a local ballot initiative or referendum from restricting maritime commerce in the seaports of this state.”

The law, sponsored by Republican Sen. Ed Hooper, restricts local governments with “any port that has received or is eligible to apply for or receive state funding” from requiring environmental or health records of ships and from placing limits on ship types, sizes or capacities; the number of passengers or crew allowed to enter the state or local jurisdiction; and the source, type and amount of cargo the ships can carry.”

Rep. Spencer Roach of North Fort Myers, a major backer of the law, had taken aim at Key West over the issue in a March Twitter post, arguing the seaport shouldn’t receive federal funds earmarked for cruise industry aid if the city limits how the industry can operate there.

“I urge my colleagues to vote against any funds for jurisdiction that have banned cruise ships as they clearly don’t need the revenue,” he wrote. “Yep, looking at you City of Key West.”

Conversely, Fellow Republican state lawmakers Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez and Rep. Jim Mooney, who represent Key West, voted against the law. Mooney cited concern over environmental impacts as a motivator.

“It is my job to protect the ecosystem in the Florida Keys, and that’s what I am going to do,” he said during an April 28 debate on the House floor, according to the Miami Herald.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is running to unseat DeSantis next year, last month criticized the Governor — whose political committee received a $1 million contribution from pier developer Mark Walsh, an outspoken critic of the referendums — for “overturning the will of voters in Key West and moving communities backwards on clean energy.”

But there appears to be a workaround, according to the Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships, the sponsor of last year’s measures, as the state law applies only to local ballot initiatives and referendums and not how port authorities can regulate and operate their facilities.

“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 in court,” Commissioner Samuel Kaufman said, according to the News Service of Florida.

“All of this is hypothetical until we see a draft ordinance,” he said. “So, I’m all for it. I’m all for review. I’m all for analysis.”

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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