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DeSantis faces critical decision on cruise ships in Key West

DeSantis faces critical decision on cruise ships in Key West

KEY WEST, Fla. — Since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when cruise ships filled with sickened passengers were blocked from U.S. ports, residents in Key West, Florida, have been trying to limit the size and number of vacation vessels on the tiny island, using the momentum created during the pandemic to argue for continuing restrictions on cruise vessels.

Activists flooded City Commission meetings, protested on the dock, collected signatures and managed to pass three ballot measures in 2020 imposing stricter controls to protect the marine environment and limit passengers to 1,500 a day — only to see the state Legislature, with the approval of Gov. Ron DeSantis, void the new restrictions the following year.

Now the wealthy hotelier who operates Key West’s cruise ship port is doubling down, asking the state for permission to expand, which would allow bigger ships with more passengers to operate legally out of the port.

The issue will soon land on the desk of DeSantis, who has received nearly $1 million in campaign donations from the pier’s owner. It represents a tough balancing act for the Republican governor, a 2024 presidential candidate who has touted his environmental record but has also been a booster of 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 whistleblower lawsuit against the local port owner, Pier B Development Corp., citing state records it said showed the company had underpaid millions of dollars in state fees and taxes. The Florida attorney general’s office dismissed the suit in part on jurisdictional grounds, a decision that activists said was a sign of continuing state support for a campaign donor, the owner of one of the country’s largest private hotel chains.

The cruise industry, meanwhile, quietly funded a campaign against the 2020 ballot measures, The Miami Herald reported, warning residents that a reduction in cruise ship revenues could lead to drastic cuts in policing and other public services.

Before the pandemic, nearly 1 million people a year were visiting Key West aboard cruise ships. But when COVID-19 brought that to a halt, the city’s $2.4 billion tourism industry — responsible for 44% of its jobs — did not collapse.

Instead, hotel tax revenue rose 15%, and with 1.4 million arrivals, the airport set a record in 2021.

“People said, ‘If you limit cruise ships, it will kill business! Jobs!’ That’s been proven false by the passage of time,” said Arlo Haskell, one of the anti-cruise ship group’s founders.

The activists have focused on the waters around the Florida Keys, which they argue improved significantly during the pandemic without a constant stream of cruise ships churning up sand and threatening coral reefs — an argument that resonated for a broad range of Key West residents.

Safer Cleaner Ships collected 2,500 signatures on the ballot measures to change the city charter; they each passed with majorities of more than 60%.

In the months after the election, 11 companies owned by the pier operator, Mark Walsh, donated a total of nearly $1 million to DeSantis’ political committee, The Miami Herald revealed.

Months later, DeSantis signed legislation that prohibited any local ballot measure from restricting marine commerce. Opponents were outraged, with many publicly calling it “pay to play.”

DeSantis’ office declined to comment on the issue, as did Walsh, whose lawyer, however, said the companies’ donations were in support of the governor’s general pro-tourism stance, especially during COVID-19.

In response to concerns that cruise ships were damaging coral reefs, Walsh urged the city in a 2021 letter to “look at the science, and what is currently being done to restore the reef environment,” an effort to which he offered to contribute.

The city settled on a compromise, prohibiting ships from mooring at the two docks the city controls. That left the privately owned dock, Pier B, operated by Walsh’s company, as the only dock available to cruise vessels. The cutback resulted in a 50% drop in cruise ship traffic, an outcome the anti-cruise ship activists saw as positive but that tourism business owners described as a substantial blow.

Edwin Swift III, president of Historic Tours of America, said his business, which offers trolley tours of the city, has been down 40%.

“The whole thing is being mishandled by the politicians,” he said.

The Safer Cleaner Ships group decided to dig further into the cruise dock company’s operations and after combing state databases filed a lawsuit alleging that the company had misreported the revenue it had earned. Using the amount of disembarkation fees Pier B had paid to the city, the group calculated that the company had underpaid the state at least $5 million in lease payments and “hundreds of thousands more” in taxes from disembarkation fees. “That’s the public’s money,” Haskell said.

The lawsuit was filed under seal in 2022 as a whistleblower case under the Florida False Claims Act, which empowers citizens to sue on behalf of state or local governments. The state attorney general’s office unsealed the suit last week, telling The New York Times that the state had investigated the matter and decided not to pursue the case.

Chase Sizemore, a spokesperson for the office, said the group’s claims were not within the jurisdiction of the False Claims Act and that many of the allegations regarding lease fees had been “investigated and lacked merit.” The tax revenue allegations, he said, had been referred to the appropriate agency for follow-up.

Jon Moore, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the agency that manages the lease, said a recent audit found “no issues” of concern related to the whistleblower claims.

The issue of what, if any, environmental damage is caused by cruise ships continues to be a contentious one. Each side has competing scientists arguing its point.

William Precht, a coral reef specialist hired by Walsh, provided photographs showing living coral reefs even at the dock where the ships port. Any sand kicked up by the ships dissipates before it can damage the reefs, he said.

“In my 40 years of working on the Florida reef tract, there haven’t been any reefs killed by cruise ships,” he said.

The Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary, a federally administered agency charged with protecting waters in the area, said in a statement that studies showing healthy reefs growing vertically on the pier do not take into consideration the coral on the sea floor that may be harmed by sand churned up by the ships.

And other scientists have cautioned that the sand threatens even coral reefs that are farther from the port. “That channel is not Vegas; what happens there doesn’t stay there,” said Henry Briceño, director of Florida International University’s Water Quality Monitoring Network, who conducted a study on 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.

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