Key West voters put limits on cruise ships — but a lawsuit is pending

Key West voters put limits on cruise ships — but a lawsuit is pending

Key West voters on Tuesday changed the way the island will do business with the cruise industry.

The city, though, has now inherited a lawsuit over the changes and a circuit judge in Monroe County has already paved the way for a trial over whether the measures stick.

Despite the legal challenges, as of Wednesday the restrictions — capping the number of daily cruise ship passengers to 1,500 and limiting mooring to ships with a capacity of 1,300 — are the law of the land, said City Manager Greg Veliz. Voters also approved a measure to give docking priority to cruise lines with the best environmental and health records.

As Veliz noted, the new restrictions are, for the moment, irrelevant. “There are no cruise ships.”

Since mid-March, cruising has been banned from U.S. waters by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention due to the pandemic. Last week the CDC released detailed requirements that could put ships back in operation in the coming months. But most cruise companies — Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean Group, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, MSC Cruises, Disney Cruise Line, and Virgin Voyages — have canceled all cruises leaving from U.S. ports until Jan. 1.

As soon as the Monroe County Supervisor of Elections certifies the vote later this month, the cruise ship restrictions take effect, said Arlo Haskell, an organizer with the Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships, which put the referendums on Tuesday’s ballot.

“The mayor just has to sign off on it and, poof, it’s an amendment to the charter,” Haskell said.

The city is now stuck with a legal fight it didn’t start, said Bill Lay, a restaurant owner in Key West who opposed the referendums. Private port owner Pier B Development filed the legal challenge to the referendums prior to the vote.

“It’s going to affect the city tremendously,” said Lay. “What was a small cause by a small group of people has now become a city issue. This has been dropped in the lap of the city of Key West.”

The referendums passed with wide margins. The 1,500 passenger limit was approved by 63%, the ban against ships with capacity of 1,300 or greater passed by about 61%.

The referendum giving priority for cruise lines with the best environmental and health records passed by 81%. But determining which ships have the best environmental records will be difficult as environmental violations are not tracked publicly. The CDC tracks norovirus and COVID-19 outbreaks on ships.

“The city will figure out day to day how they do that,” Haskell said. “If two ships are looking to schedule a call on the same day and one of them has a recent disease outbreak and one does not, then the city would be obligated to give that open spot on the calendar to that ship without that record.”

About 13,000 people voted on each of the ballot questions.

Key West has three ports: Mallory Square, which the city owns; the Outer Mole Pier, which is Navy property; and a privately operated port owned by Pier B Development.

“We will most definitely adhere to the referendum as it related to Mallory and the Outer Mole,” Veliz said. ‘Where it gets a little fuzzy is the privately owned Pier B.”

Pier B, which in July started taking legal actions against the then-proposed cruise ship changes, hasn’t said much to the press.

“At this juncture, I cannot comment,” Pier B attorney, Barton Smith, said in an email Wednesday.

Haskell said the committee members are confident Pier B’s lawsuit won’t prevail in court.

“It’s not a particularly strong case they filed,” Haskell said. “We did all our homework at the beginning.”

Haskell said the committee will stay involved “to the greatest extent possible” in the lawsuit.

“We intend to finish what we started,” Haskell said.

Veliz said city officials also have been meeting with Royal Caribbean Group over the past several months after the cruise line asked if it and the city could reach a compromise on the proposed limits.

“We told them, there’s a referendum item and it will be taken to the voters and at one point will be out of our hands,” Veliz said. “I have no authority to deal.”

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