Key West is precariously close to pulling itself apart over cruise ships. The frustrations evident during Monday’s city commission workshop are becoming hard line positions from which, if we are not careful, we may be unable to find a path forward.
In 1969, the Sunward docked in Key West, becoming the island’s first scheduled cruise ship and setting off a cascade of much-needed economic development and a seismic shift in the island’s culture and environment. Half a century later, with the return of the Norwegian Dawn on Dec. 9, Key West’s initial love affair with cruise ships, their passengers and their economic benefits is a nasty, public divorce with both parties slinging accusations both founded and not.
Since the summer of 2020, when Safer Cleaner Ships launched its petition drive to limit the size of ships and their disembarking passenger counts, through the November 2020 resounding passage of three referendums to today’s endlessly rehashed arguments, it’s difficult to find traction for solutions.
Each side blames the other; both sides press city commissioners for swift implementation of their agendas; and city commission is caught in a swamp of competing possibilities, all of which are fraught with potential legal liability and costly push back.
Over it all is the Machiavellian overreach of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his legislative minions who, when Key West asserted its Home Rule control of the three deep water docks, summarily crafted dark-of-night legislation that specifically took away the rights of Key West and overturned its voters’ overwhelming decision to limit the size of cruise ships and the numbers of passengers who disembark. A “donation” of almost $1 million by Pier B owner, Mark Walsh, to DeSantis immediately prior to the preemption legislation likely greased the skids, so to speak.
Just a couple weeks ago, what appears might be the same cabal that helped craft the preemption floated “draft” legislation to disband Key West as an independent city and hand over its assets to the county. It was and remains an irrefutable example of juvenile, playground bullying. I can hear the “we’re gonna shove it to ’em” locker laughter in Tallahassee. There might have been a time in the wayback when such antics could be clearly recognized as a sophomoric stunt. These days, honestly, I worry that they could actually pull it off.
It will take collaboration, compromise and cooler heads of heroic proportions to grab the reins of this runaway horse and begin to craft a plan that will implement the voters’ decisions while skirting the looming lawsuits that will be inevitable. If Monday’s workshop is any indication, we are in short supply of all three. And, yes, I heard Walsh tell the commission that a compromise might be had. I’ve heard Safer Cleaner Ships say they’ve been cooperating through the process.
Perhaps there’s a way. In the meantime, I do think there is common ground among us and if we hold fast, we might find that illusive path forward. Here’s what I think we can agree to:
Cruise ships contribute to the economy.
How much? We can disagree on the amount. We can disagree over whether we still need that money. Probably not as much as even a few years ago. But until we see how Covid shapes our tourist economy over the next couple years, we cannot conclusively say cruise ship dollars are irrelevant.
Without a vibrant reef and clean water, our Key West economy will crash.
The reef is dying and restoring it will be decades of work and money — if at all. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which encompasses the barrier reef off our shores, and other scientists have warned for years that the effects of climate change, sea level rise and the acidification of the water endanger the reef.
Stony Coral Disease has now been identified as far west as the Dry Tortugas. In some places along the reef, less than two percent of the corals remain.
Did cruise ships cause all that? Of course not. Did they hasten the destruction? Perhaps. As did decades of sunscreen, direct-to-ocean sewage, oil and gasoline runoffs, pesticides and herbicides, plastic and the fertilizer you’ve been using for decades. There is no single cause. It’s a complex mix of variables.
Various experts say the reef is worth as much as $8 billion (yes, billion) annually to the Florida economy, so we might want to focus our energies on strategies targeted primarily to saving the reef. And, yes, cruise ship management should be part of it. Ditto every commercial snorkeling party boat, personal watercraft, seaplane etc. — any endeavor that spews dead dinosaurs and living people into the sanctuary for fun or profit.
Our taxpayers cannot afford, nor should they, endless funding of lawsuits.
It’s mad-making for me to listen to people happily calling for lawsuits against the state, the Pier B owners, each other and the city.
Get back to the negotiating table. Put aside the determination to win at all costs. As the tradeoff of getting most of what one wants, if not all, be willing to make progress toward protecting the reef; protecting the economy; and protecting the residents of this island whose pocketbooks will be called upon if hard liners on all sides get their ways.
Disclosure: I donated money to Safer Cleaner Ships and voted yes on all three referendums.