Cruise ship bill main

Bills moving forward in the Florida House and Senate aim to reverse referenda passed by the citizens of Key West to limit the size and number of cruise ships visiting the island.

A recent Florida Senate Transportation Committee hearing on a bill that would reverse the cruise ship limits approved by Key West voters in November indicated that despite a maritime expert’s testimony that the courts are the best place to dispute any challenges to the referenda, state legislators are seriously considering removing home rule in all state seaports.

If that happens, and the identical bill in the state House of Representatives is also approved, the three cruise ship-limiting referenda in Key West would be reversed, giving control over local cruise ship visits to an as-of-yet unnamed state agency.

The Transportation Committee hearing on Feb. 6 included testimony from Capt. Alan Richard, an attorney and maritime law expert. Under questioning by Committee Chair Sen. Gayle Harrell on which state or federal agency has jurisdiction over any seaport regulation challenges, Richard said the matter belonged in state or federal court, where a judge would weigh the potential local benefits of cruise ship restrictions against any disruption to state and local businesses supporting the cruise and cargo industries in Florida. Harrell then asked Richard whether a court ruling in favor of Key West would set a precedent for other Florida seaports to limit commerce. Richard said it would, indeed, set a precedent.

That got the attention of state Sen. Keith Perry, who questioned Arlo Haskell, testifying on behalf of the Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships, whether simple public opinion — he suggested a negative Google review could stimulate a citizen revolt — would promote local regulations limiting maritime commerce.

“I see this as a slippery slope the state would not want to go down. You’re talking about restricting commerce. Now it’s people. Next, it’s cars,” said Perry, who represents north Central Florida. He used an example of people who want fewer cars on Florida roadways having the power to limit cargo ships carrying those vehicles into Florida ports.

Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, who represents the Florida Keys, suggested that by limiting cruise ships to smaller vessels, including some that cater to wealthier travelers, Key West was discriminating against passengers who can only afford to travel on less-expensive cruise lines.

“Are you saying limit the social classes in Key West,” Rodriguez asked Haskell. “Higher dollar versus lower dollar?”

“No, of course not,” Haskell responded.

However, the Florida Pilots Association, which represents the tug boat captains who guide large vessels in and out of state ports, is apparently trying to head off concerns raised by the Florida Ports Council about the sweeping home rule bill, which, along with the identical House bill, propose to take seaport management out of the hands of local officials, giving the state pre-emptive authority.

The Ports Council, while not endorsing the referenda restrictions in Key West, is worried that removing local authority would disrupt all seaports’ ability to conduct their own business. Every seaport is different, said Michael Rubin, vice president of the Ports Council office of government affairs.

“You’ve now called into question every contract issued by that seaport with existing cargo companies and opened them up for lawsuits and other issues with tenants,” he told Transportation Committee members at the hearing. “This [Key West referenda] is a local issue that should be governed by that [local] master plan.”

The amendment to SB426 written by the Pilots Association suggests throwing out the entire bill and replacing it with one that would more narrowly tailor the proposed legislation to Key West alone. It would preserve the authority of a port authority — which Key West does not have but other Florida seaports do — to regulate vessel movements within its jurisdiction. But, according to the amendment, unless the U.S. Coast Guard approves, a city could not restrict “a vessel’s type or size, source or type of cargo, or number, origin, or nationality of passengers, except as required to ensure safety due to the physical limitations of channels, berths, anchorages, or other port facilities.”

There are three Senate committees that must vote to approve SB426 before the state House can begin its own hearings on the bill.