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Monroe County Commission votes to oppose cruise ship preemption

The Monroe County Commission will vote Wednesday, March 17, on a resolution opposing the Florida Legislature’s attempt to preempt the City of Key West voters passage of referendum limiting the number of passengers and size of cruise ships.

The vote comes as the state legislators seem determined to pass the legislation, despite significant pushback from Keys local governments and environmental and home rule supporters. Bills in the House of Representatives and Senate are quickly moving through committees and could soon face the Legislature.

The County Commission’s proposed resolution states that a current example of the local government preemption of home rule authority is the proposed legislation SB 426 and HB 267, “which broadly preempt local government regulation of commerce in sea ports, preempting the authority to regulate port activity to the state.”

“All 14 ports in Florida, including the Port of Key West are all controlled by local government entities — a city, county or local port authority, and local control and authority of the seaports in Florida has been in place since before 1845, and local control and authority of seaports is the most common structure of seaports nationally,” the resolution stated.

SB 426 and HB 267 were introduced after the passage of three local referendums by more than 60% of Key West voters that limit cruise ship traffic into the Port of Key West.

“Preemption bills such as these adversely impact the authority of local governments to enforce existing and adopt effective rules and regulations while protecting the values of their communities,” the County Commission resolution stated. “The Monroe County Board of County Commissioners finds that the Florida Legislature’s effort to weaken home rule conflicts with the rights and ability of local government and local voters to protect their community and environment.”

If passed, the county would be the third local government to pass a resolution opposing the state bill. Islamorada Village Council and Key West City Commission passed similar resolutions.

Also on Wednesday, the commission will discuss possibly buying or taking over management of the senior living facility at Poinciana Gardens.

The facility is currently owned and operated by the Key West Housing Authority. However, the Housing Authority has struggled with keeping a management company in place to run and the facility has been operating at far less than capacity and is struggling to generate revenue.

The county gave the Housing Authority $400,000 this year to help defer costs.

The commission meeting starts at 9 a.m. and will be a hybrid format with commissioners meeting live at the Murray E. Nelson Government Center in Key Largo. The public can participate via Communication Media Technology (“CMT”) using a Zoom webinar platform. Information on participating in the meeting can be found at http://monroecountyfl.iqm2.com/citizens/default.aspx.


State to crack down on derelict vessels

Florida legislators, with the input of FWC board member and Key Wester Robert Spottswood, have crafted a bill that would require all live-aboard boaters in the Florida Keys to move their boats every three months.

People living on the water have been part of the culture in the Florida Keys for decades, but it has become a thorny issue for local law enforcement, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Monroe County government in recent years.

Spottswood and the legislators proposed HB 639, and its Senate companion bill SB 1086, after the FWC and the county government tried unsuccessfully for years to deter boats from becoming derelict and sinking, and the entities have spent hundreds of thousands of dollar removing sunk or partially sunk vessels that could have gone to boat ramps, channel markers and other water-dependent activities.

Since 2008, the county’s Marine Resources Division has removed 706 derelict vessels at a cost of $2.6 million. In 2019 alone, 48 boats were removed at a cost of about $339,000, according to the agency.

However, live-aboard boats have become a source of affordable housing in a chain of islands where it is difficult to find a one-bedroom apartment for less than $2,000 a month.

The county’s Marine Resources Division estimated that the total number of long-term anchored vessels, both stored and abandoned and live-aboard, in Keys’ waters is approximately 600 to 700. Approximately 300 of these are live-aboard vessels. These numbers are based on previous live-aboard studies, pump-out data and field observation, said Celia Hitchins, senior administrator for the Marine Resources Division.

Spottswood became involved in the issue after the FWC and the county removed thousands of sunken vessels after Hurricane Irma, he told The Key West Citizen on Tuesday.

“If you look out in the water in the Keys, you will see vessels sitting around falling apart waiting to become derelict,” Spottswood said. “This is a real attempt to address derelict vessels. This is also an attempt to protect our environment. These boats are damaging grassy seabeds.”

The intent of the bill is “not to push anyone out, but to pick out areas where they can go and have pump-out services, dinghy docks and showers,” Spottswood said.

“We can actually improve the quality of life and provide better services,” Spottswood said.

The 78-page HB 639 was filed by State Rep. Tyler Sirois, R-Merrit Island, and SB 1086 was filed by Sen. Travis Hutson, R- Palm Coast. The bills address several issues relating to boating and could limit or restrict where people anchor or moor in several areas of the state.

“Monroe County is designated as an anchoring limitation area within which a vessel may only be anchored in the same location for a maximum of 90 days,” the bills state. “The (FWC) commission shall adopt rules to implement this subsection.”

The requirement to move a vessel every 90 days would not apply to vessels moored in management mooring fields, such as the Key West city mooring field.

Last month, the Monroe County Commission passed a resolution in support of HB 639 and SB 1086.

“Monroe County worked with FWC to amend Florida Statutes to regulate illegal and unpermitted moorings to address public safety, environmental degradation, and their direct contribution to the proliferation of abandoned and derelict vessels,” the County Commission resolution stated. “Monroe County recognizes this proposed legislation as an important continuation of both state and local efforts to improve vessel safety, reduce vessel dereliction and illegal marine waste discharges, and protect our citizens and our environment.”

The bill is being met with resistance from people who call or have called their vessels home.

Key West resident Ben Lieb wrote state legislators a letter outlining his objections to the proposed bill, stating these bills effectively and greatly “increase the difficulty of ‘living aboard’ in Monroe County.”

“Live-aboard boaters form a large proportion of the local workforce and faced with current high rental prices and the greater than ever lack of short-term rentals further reducing housing availability, with many Keys residents naturally gravitate towards the option of life ‘on the hook,’ “ he wrote.

Lieb argued most boats that survive the tropical storms and hurricanes had multiple anchors. By having the mariners pull up the anchors and moving the vessels every 90 day, the boats would be less secure in storms and it would create more problems to the sea bottom and the environment, he wrote.

“Boats employing these systems I’ve described were almost exclusively the few to survive Hurricane Irma,” Lieb wrote. “More actually sunk safely attached to their anchoring system instead of breaking free and causing collateral damages. The city moorings neighboring Key West Harbor were hit equally as hard and certainly did not fare any better than those boats in the harbor proper which were anchored according to our experiential community best practices.”

There are no mooring fields in Monroe County other than those which are perpetually full, and no efforts are underway to increase the number of moorings, according to Lieb.

“It is clear to me and my community that in order to preserve a functioning economy as well as the security of a traditional and essential way of life in Monroe County, forcing us to hop around the anchorages every three months during hurricane season is counter productive to everyone’s goals,” Lieb wrote. “Nor will it serve to reduce the number of derelict boats, the supposed goal of the legislation.”


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One of Monroe County's most wanted arrested in Mexico


One of Monroe County’s most wanted criminals is now in custody after a joint investigation by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

The Key West Police Special Investigation Unit, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Marshal Service, the Department of Homeland Security and the Attorney General’s Office of Statewide Prosecution all played a role in the apprehension of Yosbel Flores Rodriguez, who was being sought on a $10 million bond following a 2013 drug trafficking investigation.

The joint detective work led investigators to Merida, Mexico, where on March 12 Flores Rodriguez, 40 of Miami, was apprehended and deported to the United States, according to KWPD spokeswoman Alyson Crean.

In 2013, Flores Rodriguez was arrested for conspiracy to traffic in illegal drugs, including opioids. He failed to appear in court and, as a result, the warrant was issued, according to Crean.

Flores-Rodriguez was part of a group under investigation in 2013 for drug possession and trafficking.

A traffic stop in the Upper Keys had resulted in the seizure of 500 illegal prescription pills and eight grams of cocaine. Arrested were Ihobel Perez, of Stock Island, and Alberto Vizcaino Gonzalez, of Miami. Both are felony charges.

An earlier investigation in the Lower Keys that spanned local and federal law enforcement groups resulted in multiple arrests that netted two kilograms of cocaine, hundreds of pills, nearly $200,000 in cash and guns. Arrested in that investigation was Jasmani Vizcaino Gonzalez.

The 2013 investigations involved Key West Police, Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Homeland Security.

In 2015, Flores-Rodrigues was named in a case that sought to reverse an earlier dismissal order involving himself and the other defendants. That case was remanded for further proceedings.