The complex study could cost as much as $5.5 million, said Eric Bush, chief of planning and policy at the Army Corps Jacksonville District. The city would be responsible for half the cost, although Hulse said cruise ship lines and the state have indicated in talks that they likely would kick in some funding for the study.
The state has a huge interest in this, Hulse said. The state receives about $4 to $5 million in sales tax just from cruise ships in Key West. So they have an interest in keeping ships here and not going to foreign ports.
And while its a local issue, it has attracted international attention. A group from Venice, Italy, called Comitato No Grandi Navi, which roughly translates to Committee for No Big Ships, teamed up with Bensons committee in a joint resolution. It states the two groups will coordinate their efforts to educate the public on the dire need to limit the size of vessels and number of passengers able to disembark on any single day in historic maritime ports. It also is working to advance good stewardship of resources and sustainability.
But John Dolan-Heitlinger, who heads the Key West Seaport Alliance of retail merchants, ice cream shops, jewelry stores and bar pilots, said people should not fear that the marine environment will be ruined or even badly scarred over the long haul because any damage done short term by the dredging would be repaired with coral and other marine habitat restoration.
Certainly with the mitigation that has got to be done it means the environment is going to have to be in better shape after the project than before, and if its not, its not going to be approved, Dolan-Heitlinger said.
Approval is a big question mark even if the referendum passes. A yes vote simply means the city will request the study. Its up to the Corps whether it will conduct it, and it cant unless Congress approves appropriations for it.
And while the Corps concluded in its $100,000 reconnaissance study in 2010 that a significant federal interest in national water policy and economic development exists for navigation improvements to the Key West Harbor, Bush said the Corps will not waste federal dollars conducting the feasibility study if it appears that such a project would remain prohibited in the sanctuary.
As it stands now, the only dredging allowed in the sanctuary is for maintenance of existing channels that were written into the regulations. In 2004 and 2005, the U.S. Navy dredged the harbors natural channel to clear out silt that had filled in over time. It was the 11th such improvement project over the last century.
There are known corals in the proposed dredging area that are protected under the Endangered Species Act. But there are special cases in which the sanctuary does issue permits to disturb the sea floor, including research, education and, if the disturbance furthers the main mission of the sanctuary: resource protection.
One example is in Islamorada, where we allowed directional drilling into the sea floor for the wastewater treatment project, said Sean Morton, superintendent of the sanctuary. It improves the water quality situation so it furthered the goal of resource protection.
But there are now no permit categories on the books that allow dredging or other sea bottom disturbance strictly for economic reasons, Morton said.