Florida Permits Larger Cruise Ships in Key West Over Local Objections

Key West Florida
Modifications to the lease at a privately operated pier will permit larger cruise ships to call in Key West (Carnival Cruise Line file photo)

Published Mar 28, 2024 5:58 PM by The Maritime Executive

Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis on Tuesday approved a new long-term lease for a pier in Key West making it possible for larger cruise ships to call at the popular port despite the ongoing objections of the majority of the residents of the resort town. It is the latest step in a multi-year battle between environmental groups supported by local residents and the state government to reduce the size and number of cruise ships docking in the port.

Tuesday’s action by Governor DeSantis followed a recommendation from the state Department of Environmental Protection staff to increase the square footage of the lease area. It was part of a recommendation to also transition from a temporary agreement for a private company to operate Pier B, controlled by the state, to a 25-year lease. The recommendation adds about 50 feet in width and over 40 feet in length to the lease area making it legal for the privately managed Pier B to accept the larger ships.

It marks the second time the Governor has disregarded local actions. The fight began in 2020 when a local referendum, which won that majority of the votes, called for capping the number of people (passengers and crew) that could come ashore to 1,500 people a day and the size of the ships to have no more than 1,300 people aboard. Also, they wanted a restriction for just one cruise ship a day and to give preference to ships with the best environmental records.

The Key West City Commission was able to impose the restriction at the town-owned Mallory Square pier, but the Florida legislature blocked the efforts to extend the restriction to the other piers in the city. The DEP granted a temporary use permit to the Pier B Development Corp., owned by Mark Walsh, a De Santis donor, so that they could continue to provide a berth to larger cruise ships. The state legislature also passed a law specifically blocking local charter initiatives saying that local initiatives could not interfere with state commence.

Environmentalists continue to complain about the impact of cruise ships on the reef and waters of Key West. They objected and were able to get the Pier B cited for lease violations due to the size of the ships. The groups also contend that DEP officials “have not inspected the docks since 2019,” despite their complaints about harm from sediment spread by the cruise ships.

Pier B Development Corp. applied for modifications of its lease to reflect the larger square footage and the DEP issued the recommendation to the governor.  The company as part of its lease modification agreed to make a $50,000 donation to a local lab that works to research, breed, and replant coral.

According to reports from Florida, the recommendation specifically found that “the expansion of the lease would not lead to worse water quality or harm any habit or rare species.” The DEP cited the strong economic benefits from the cruise ships and tourism reporting that the five million visitors spend over $2.4 billion. They said the benefits extend beyond Key West to the country and the state.

The City Commission can continue to impose the limits on the pier which it controls. The local groups are saying this latest action demonstrates the need for federal management to preserve the environment.