Key West remains divided over cruise ships. Did the city break its own rule on how many can come?
In Key West, where being laid-back is a lifestyle, just the mention of cruise ships can stir heated debates.
Locals and business owners have long been divided over the cruise industry's impact on the island's already fragile tropical environment and the tourism-reliant economy.
So when the Key West City Commission last year unanimously passed a resolution pledging to allow only one ship per day in the harbor, tensions cooled.
The compromise put an end to the waterfront protests by the homegrown activist group Safer Cleaner Ships and hundreds of people crowding City Hall during commission meetings to argue over cruise ships.
However, there's only so much the city can control when it comes to cruise ships. Key West is home to Pier B, a privately managed business free to book cruise ships without government control.
Nonetheless, city commissioners told voters they could carry out the resolution because they own the city's other pier, at Mallory Square.
But in February — twice — the Mallory Square pier had a cruise ship in port at the same time as the privately-managed Pier B right next door.
On Feb. 20, the Ritz-Carlton's Evrima docked at Mallory while at the same time the larger Royal Caribbean's Radiance of the Seas was at Pier B, according to social media posts and the cruise ship schedule managed by the local company Caribe Nautical.
A week later, the same thing happened again, with two ships lined up at the two piers at the same time.
Safer Cleaner Ships blasted the city, saying staff violated the city commission's resolution — which they already consider a compromise on the issue. The group had succeeded in passing three ballot measures in 2020 that limited the size and capacity of cruise ships allowed to dock.
"It stinks," said Arlo Haskell, one of its founders. "It just seems like such a clear violation."
"It's been very upsetting for the people who follow this issue – the clear majority of voters in Key West who want cruise ship limits," he added.
City Manager Patti McLauchlin confirmed two ships had docked on the same day twice in February. But they were scheduled before the single ship at a time policy took effect, she said.
The one-ship policy is under attack. Who is responsible? See our latest newsletter here and demand answers from your @City_of_KeyWest Commissioners. 👇https://t.co/of0em8pVMO pic.twitter.com/bVddhpU0X8— Safer, Cleaner Ships (@ProtectKeyWest) February 23, 2023
"We will continue to abide by the resolution and only allow one ship in," McLauchlin told WLRN.
This week, McLauchlin said she canceled two scheduled cruise ships that were due to arrive at the city's pier in December on days Pier B is also set to receive a vessel. That includes an overnight cruise on Christmas Day — which Haskell pointed out would have blocked the view of Key West's famous sunset at Mallory Square during the daily Sunset Celebration festival.
She also told WLRN that the city "are cancelling" a ship due to come in on March 30, a day when, again, Pier B is set to have an arrival.
The city can only control Mallory Square's cruise ship schedule, she added. Pier B is privately managed by the Walsh family, which owns the property next-door to Mallory, along with the high-end Opal Key Marina and Resort that fronts the same waterfront view.
When approached by WLRN, a Pier B representative said their attorney Bart Smith could not be reached for comment.
In an email blast to supporters Haskell, of Safer Cleaner Ships, had also questioned if lobbyists representing businesses with a financial stake in cruise ship arrivals played a role in the double occupancy at Key West harbor earlier this year.
"I have not been lobbied by anybody," McLauchlin responded. "It was a commitment I held to that was approved before this."
Copyright 2023 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.