Since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when cruise ships filled with sick passengers were blocked in U.S. ports, residents of Key West, Florida, have been trying to limit the size and number of vacation boats on the small island. , taking advantage of the momentum. created during the pandemic to defend the continuity of cruise restrictions.
Activists flooded City Commission meetings, protested on the dock, collected signatures, and managed to pass three ballot measures in 2020 that imposed stricter controls to protect the marine environment and limited passengers to 1,500 per day, only to see the Legislature state, with the approval of the governor. Ron DeSantis will repeal the new restrictions next year.
Now, the wealthy hotelier who operates the Key West cruise port is doubling down, asking the state for permission to expand, which would allow larger ships with more passengers to legally operate from the port.
The issue will soon land on the desk of DeSantis, who has received nearly a million dollars in campaign donations from the pier owner. It represents a difficult balancing act for the Republican governor, a 2024 presidential candidate who has touted his environmental record but has also boosted Florida’s tourism industry.
Safer Cleaner Ships, the organization behind the move to keep large cruise ships out of Key West, recently fired another salvo: It filed a whistleblowing lawsuit against local port owner Pier B Development Corp., citing state records that The company had underpaid millions of dollars in state fees and taxes, he said. The Florida attorney general’s office dismissed the lawsuit in part on jurisdictional grounds, a decision activists said was a sign of continued state support for a campaign donor, the owner of one of the nation’s largest private hotel chains. .
For DeSantis, whose policies are under scrutiny during the presidential campaign, the decision whether or not to authorize expanded cruise operations requires weighing environmental concerns as well as potential revenue from his state’s largest industry in a petition that comes from from a major campaign donor. .
The issue has been contentious in Key West, where many people whose livelihoods depend on cruise ship visitors accuse the ballot measure’s proponents of “class warfare” and not welcoming low-income tourists who book passages on the gigantic ships. Local outlets, tour guides and harbor pilots argued that hotels on the island are expensive and cruise ships open up the area to people who otherwise could not afford to visit.
Meanwhile, the cruise industry quietly funded a campaign against the 2020 ballot measures, The Miami Herald reported, warning residents that a reduction in cruise ship revenue could lead to drastic cuts to police and other public services.
Before the pandemic, nearly a million people a year visited Key West aboard cruise ships. But when Covid-19 stopped that, the city’s $2.4 billion tourism industry, responsible for 44 percent of its jobs, did not collapse.
Instead, hotel tax revenue increased by 15 percent and, with 1.4 million arrivals, the airport set a record in 2021.
“People said, ‘If you limit cruises you’ll kill the business!’ Jobs!’ The passage of time has proven that to be false,” said Arlo Haskell, one of the founders of the anti-cruise group.
Activists have focused on the waters around the Florida Keys, which they say have improved significantly during the pandemic without a constant flow of cruise ships churning up sand and threatening coral reefs, an argument that resonated across a wide range of people. of Key West residents.
Safer Cleaner Ships collected 2,500 signatures on ballot measures to change the city charter; each of them approved with majorities greater than 60 percent.
In the months after the election, 11 companies owned by pier operator Mark Walsh donated a total of nearly $1 million to Mr. DeSantis’ political committee, The Miami Herald revealed.
Months later, DeSantis signed legislation prohibiting any local ballot measures from restricting maritime commerce. Opponents were outraged and many publicly called it “pay to play.”
DeSantis’ office declined to comment on the issue, as did Walsh, whose attorney, however, said the companies’ donations supported the governor’s overall pro-tourism stance, especially during Covid-19.
Responding to concerns that cruise ships were damaging coral reefs, Walsh urged the city in a 2021 letter to “consider the science and what is currently being done to restore the reef environment,” an effort al who offered to contribute. .
The city reached a compromise, prohibiting ships from docking at the two docks the city controls. That left the privately owned pier, Pier B, operated by Mr. Walsh’s company, as the only pier available for cruise ships. The cut resulted in a 50 percent drop in cruise traffic, a result that anti-cruise activists saw as positive but that tourism business owners described as a substantial hit.
Edwin O. Swift III, president of Historic Tours of America, said his business, which offers streetcar tours of the city, is down 40 percent.
“All this is being mishandled by politicians,” he said.
The Safer Cleaner Ships group decided to dig deeper into the cruise ship dock company’s operations and, after reviewing state databases, filed a lawsuit alleging that the company had incorrectly reported the revenue it had earned. Using the amount of landing fees that Pier B had paid to the city, the group calculated that the company had underpaid the state by at least $5 million in lease payments and “hundreds of thousands more” in landing fee taxes. . “That’s the public’s money,” Haskell said.
The lawsuit was filed under seal in 2022 as a whistleblowing case under Florida’s False Claims Act, which empowers citizens to sue on behalf of state or local governments. The state attorney general’s office opened the lawsuit last week and told The Times that the state had investigated the matter and decided not to pursue the case.
Chase Sizemore, a spokesman for the office, said the group’s claims did not fall within the jurisdiction of the False Claims Act and that many of the allegations regarding rental fees had been “investigated and were unsubstantiated.” The tax revenue allegations, he said, had been forwarded to the appropriate agency for follow-up.
Jon Moore, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the agency that administers the lease, said a recent audit found “no issues” of concern related to the whistleblowers’ claims.
Pier B officials said they recently learned of the tax and fee lawsuit. Matt Redstone, deputy controller for Walsh’s company, Ocean Properties, said he had paid all fees owed to the state.
Bart Smith, a lawyer representing Mr. Walsh in Key West, said the claims made by Safer Cleaner Ships in its lawsuit were “false and baseless,” adding that the company had corrected the way it reported its income.
“Unfortunately, there is a group that is willing to disparage and issue false statements or misrepresentations without consequences to achieve their political and financial objectives,” Mr. Smith said. “Pier B will continue its efforts to support the Key West community, the environment and especially the restoration of the reefs in the Florida Keys.”
Ships larger than allowed under Pier B’s existing lease with the state have already docked in Key West, a fact that came to light when cruise ship opponents last year photographed several large ships docked at the pier and They reported it to the state. and federal authorities.
Mark Kincaid, an engineering consultant who works for Walsh, acknowledged that ships larger than allowed under the lease were docking at the dock, a legacy of practices he said began before the city closed its own docks to Cruises.
The company’s latest request for more space is designed to “comply” with regulations, but it won’t make any practical difference, Kincaid said.
Last year, the state issued a temporary permit allowing expansion to accommodate larger ships, but it expires in June.
The question of whether cruise ships cause any environmental damage remains controversial. Each side has competing scientists arguing their point.
William Precht, a coral reef specialist hired by Walsh, provided photographs showing live coral reefs even at the dock where the ships dock. Any sand kicked up by ships dissipates before it can damage the reefs, he said.
“In my 40 years of working the Florida stretch of reefs, cruise ships have not killed any reefs,” he said.
The Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary, a federally run agency charged with protecting waters in the area, said in a statement that studies showing healthy reefs growing vertically off the pier do not take into consideration corals on the sea floor. which can be damaged by agitated sand. up by the boats.
And other scientists have warned that the sand threatens even the coral reefs furthest from the port. “That canal is not Las Vegas: what happens there doesn’t stay there,” said Henry O. Briceño, director of the Water Quality Monitoring Network at Florida International University, who conducted a study in the area that has been cited by cruise ship opponents. “What happens there goes to the coral reef.”
The governor, who has called the reefs a “state treasure,” is expected to make a decision with his cabinet in December.