The cruise ship referenda battle may claim a completely separate victim.
Key West City Attorney Shawn Smith told city commissioners at their last meeting that a deal to build a pedestrian bridge over Admiral's Cut, the 45-foot-wide water gap in the sidewalk between the Pier B cruise port and Truman Waterfront Park, may be sidelined by the recent lawsuit filed against the city by Pier B Development Corp. Both Pier B and the owner of Admiral's Cut, Margaritaville Key West Resort & Marina, are controlled by Ocean Properties, Ltd., one of the largest hotel and development company in the United States.
Pier B's lawsuit named the city, Monroe County Election Supervisor Joyce Griffin and the Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships as defendants and asked a circuit county judge to stop three referendums limiting cruise ship size and passenger disembarkations from appearing on the Nov. 3 general election ballot.
“We're a defendant in litigation brought by the owners of Admiral's Cut. So, I wouldn't say they're falling over themselves to give Admiral's Cut to the City of Key West at this time,” Smith said.
A deal to build a bridge over Admiral's Cut has been a contentious issue for almost a decade, pitting Key West city officials against two different hotel owners. The sidewalk gap is in front of a vacation rental property currently owned by the Margaritaville Resort and owners both past and present have worried that an increase in pedestrian traffic using a bridge at that spot would interfere with their guest's enjoyment of the water view.
However, Margaritaville owners appeared willing to break the impasse in March, when they sent a letter to the city with their requirements for granting permission. Despite previous interest in tying bridge approval to the city putting limits on a proposed Mallory Square restaurant that would compete with Margaritaville's existing waterfront eatery, Bistro 245, the formal offer asked only that security cameras be installed at the site, security personnel patrol the area at night and the city foot the cost of the bridge. City Manager Greg Veliz in March called the offer “not unreasonable.”
But the legal battle to limit cruise ships, which would significantly affect Pier B, the only privately-owned pier of the three that can accept large cruise ships along the city waterfront, may turn Admiral's Cut into the bridge to nowhere.
“It's kind of an unfortunately situation, quite frankly. We'll address it again. My expectations are not great,” Smith told commissioners at their Aug. 19 meeting.
Pier B corporate officials could not be reached for comment. But several commissioners said the two issues were unrelated.
“They're two entirely separate issues,” said Commissioner Sam Kaufman.
Other commissioners agreed that since the city did not bring forth the three cruise ship referenda — they came as a result of a petition sponsored by Safer, Cleaner Ships — it should not be penalized by Margaritaville backing off its previous bridge agreement.
“I think we need to try to get them at the table and renew those conversations,” said Commissioner Jimmy Weekley. “It [Cut bridge] is something so many people in the community have been asking for. We need to make them understand that.”
However, if a renewed understanding is not possible, Mayor Teri Johnston intimated the city may resort its own legal measures, such as invoking eminent domain, to force Margaritaville owners to give up control of the Cut.
“That gives us options, then, to move forward in a different path,” she said.
Veliz had met with attorneys for Margaritaville last October to discuss bridging the Cut, currently a strip of water used for small watercraft storage that stops pedestrians from easily accessing two of the city's major public amenities, Mallory Square and the new Truman Waterfront Park. At that time, Veliz said, the attorneys “asked a lot of questions” as to how the city was progressing with negotiations with local restaurateur Joe Walsh over proposed plans for a new restaurant in city-owned Mallory Square. However, Margaritaville appeared to have dropped that part of the negotiations in its March offer letter.
Since bridge discussions started up again earlier this year, there have been numerous complaints on social media from residents against linking Mallory Square and Truman Waterfront Park. The complaints centered on a fear that cruise ship passengers who disembark at the pier would be more likely to walk to the new park, turning it into a tourist destination instead of what is now largely a serene spot for locals and their families to use.
But Johnston said at the time that the park is mostly empty during the day when cruise passengers are in town and having multiple visitors will keep it “vibrant and utilized the way we want it.”