We recently celebrated our anniversary in the Keys. It was fun to be back in the part of the state that calls itself the Conch Republic (Motto: “We Seceded Where Others Failed”) and celebrates an annual Independence Day — which, like many things in the Keys, is basically an excuse to have a party that lasts several days.
While this is mostly tongue-in-cheek stuff, even another piece of the marketing of Margaritaville, it is rooted in a genuine and ongoing frustration with others trying to dictate life in the Keys.
The latest example: cruise ships in Key West.
In the three decades since we honeymooned in Key West, a lot of things remain unchanged. There still are six-toed cats lounging around the Hemingway House, chickens roaming Blue Heaven, drunk tourists stumbling out of Sloppy Joe’s.
But one thing longtime locals say has changed dramatically: the size of the ships arriving at Key West.
In just the last 15 years, the size of the average cruise ship calling at Key West has grown by 30 percent — with the largest ships now 45 percent bigger.
Key West is the only cruise port in the world with a relatively narrow and shallow main channel — a channel that locals point out runs directly through the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and near some of the most sensitive ecological preserves in the hemisphere.
Last year, not long after COVID-19 halted cruises, locals started to notice something interesting happening to the water near shore. The quality improved. So did anglers’ catches.
This wasn’t surprising. While scientists have documented the effects of large cruise ships, you don’t have to be a scientist to see it. The clouds of sediment churned up by the large ships in shallow water can be seen from space. And some of the people who are closest to the water, charter captains and fishermen, have been saying for years that they have seen the marine environment deteriorating.
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So last November, while the nation was focused on the presidential race, the Key West ballot also included three local referendums to limit the size of cruise ships. One would prevent cruise ships with a capacity of more than 1,300 from docking in the city. Another would limit the number of passengers each day. And a third says that cruise ships with good environmental and health safety records get to disembark first.
All three passed, with margins of 60 to 80 percent.
Then politicians in Tallahassee got involved. Along with dark money from foreign-owned cruise lines. And a nearly $1 million donation from the owner of a company that runs a Key West cruise ship dock, given to the Friends of Ron DeSantis political committee.
During the recent legislative session, politicians from other parts of the state introduced a bill to override the will of the Key West voters by stripping Florida communities of the ability to manage their local ports. The bill’s sponsors, from Fort Myers and Merritt Island, said Key West voters were “engaging in economic elitism in an attempt to remake Key West in the mold of Martha’s Vineyard.”
Key West Mayor Teri Johnston gave this rebuttal to the Florida Phoenix: “The people making this legislation haven’t been here. They have no idea how important the environment of the Keys is to us and our economy.”
When it appeared the bill had died in the final week of the Legislative session, there was celebration in the Keys. (OK, I know that’s not unusual. But this celebration was a little different.) Then, at the last minute, the bill came back to life, tacked onto an unrelated transportation bill, approved in both chambers and sent to DeSantis to sign — or to veto.
This led Arlo Haskell, a Key West native who helped form the group that led the push (the Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships), and Will Benson, a charter fishing guide, to write an op-ed that appeared in the Miami Herald calling for DeSantis to oppose “State Preemption of Seaport Regulations” (SB 426/HB 267).
“Legislators staged an attack not just on democracy, but also on water quality in the Florida Keys,” it said. “Many of us Keys fishermen and small-business owners who fought for the Key West referendums also voted for DeSantis. He promised to protect the environment and he’s followed through by building a strong record of Everglades restoration. He understands that Florida’s economy depends upon a healthy environment, and that’s the same reason we launched the referendum last year to prioritize smaller ships over the mega-ships that threaten the reef and the future of our $800 million charter-fishing industry.”
Here’s the thing: If the bill goes into law, it doesn’t just allow massive cruise ships to call on Key West and disembark unlimited numbers of passengers. It limits local say at 15 Florida seaports. And it’s part of an even larger pattern, with ramifications far beyond ports and cruise ships.
More than just the Keys
State leaders love to complain about Washington D.C. meddling in our business. But those same state leaders — often the ones who complain the loudest about Washington — keep trying to tell local communities what they can and can’t do.
Key West cruise ships are just one example from the past year. There are many others, involving everything from mask mandates to growth management to clean-energy ordinances.
Another prime example of an attack on home rule: the passing of the Home-Based Business bill (CS/HB 403).
During the recent session, the Florida League of Cities negotiated with legislators and stakeholders to reach a compromise on home-based businesses, something that allowed for such businesses but also allowed local communities to have some reasonable control. Then the bill was amended on the last day of session, removing key provisions and blocking cities and counties from enforcing their local zoning laws.
The mayors of dozens of cities — including Jacksonville Beach and St. Augustine — wrote letters to the governor, asking him to veto this bill.
“The proposed legislation strips regulation authority from local governments,” St. Augustine Mayor Tracy Upchurch said. “While the City of St. Augustine supports entrepreneurship, a responsive government must balance the desire to operate a home-based business with the potential impacts on residential neighborhoods and residential property values.”
Jacksonville Beach Mayor Chris Hoffman wrote that it makes sense for local communities to craft their own ordinances for home-based businesses. For example, low-intensity uses such as a professional office might be compatible with some residential neighborhoods, while high-intensity uses such as a repair yard or 24-hour gym might not be.
“Zoning is an inherent function of local government,” Hoffman wrote. “If allowed to become law, CS/HB 403 will be a significant preemption of Home Rule powers and the ability of local government to balance competing property rights.”
So now this and other bills are in the hands of the governor — who also likes to decry folks up in Washington telling us what we can and can’t do in Florida, then turn around and tell Florida cities what they can and can’t do.
When DeSantis declared last October that local communities couldn’t enforce mask mandates, he got to have his political cake and eat it, too. This made it possible for him to run for his next office saying he opened up Florida during the pandemic — conveniently ignoring that without measures taken by local communities, our COVID hospitalizations and deaths could have been even worse.
But perhaps the most Florida of issues is the one in Conch Republic. If politicians can successfully tell people there that their vote didn’t matter, they can do it anywhere in the state.
If the huge cruise ships return to Key West without limits on passengers, it will be symbolic of the state of politics in this state.
Our leaders are big believers in home rule. Well, unless they don’t like those rules. Or they believe they can advance their own career, maybe even get a job in Washington, by fighting home rule.
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