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Debate joined on Key West dredging

Before the decade-long regulatory process could begin on widening Key West's shipping channel, proponents face changing federal law that prohibits the dredging needed to accommodate larger cruise ships.

On Wednesday, the city hosted a public workshop, giving residents details of the proposal and allowing comment for interested stakeholders, including federal reps and local residents.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a reconnaissance study last November that deemed the project economically viable, setting a price tag at about $35 million.

The next step, which will require Key West City Commission approval, involves committing 50 percent to fund a $5 million feasibility study that would further analyze a host of environmental and economic impacts.

Key West now schedules visits for about 350 cruise ships carrying roughly 800,000 passengers a year; that generates $2.5 million in landing fee revenues that go into the city's general fund.

Billy Causey, a Key West-based regional director of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association's National Marine Sanctuary Program, addressed the feasibility of the widening, which would expand Cut B of the channel from 300 feet to 450 feet.

" Dredging and filling is prohibited in the waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, " he said. " We currently do not have a permit category that we could find that would be possible to use for permitting this activity. "

Causey's words triggered loud applause from many in the standing-room-only crowd that packed Old City Hall for the workshop.

Sanctuary spokeswoman Karrie Carnes, in an email to the Keynoter, explained more specifically the prohibition on dredging.

" Dredging and destruction of coral and sea fan resources would take either a change in [Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary] regulations or a permit, " Carnes wrote, " and upon initial review it is unclear that there are any permit categories for which this project would qualify.

" Permits are typically issued for research, educational, archeological, or other projects, which increase the scientific understanding or natural resource value of the Sanctuary and its resources. "

Carnes said the process resulting in regulatory changes " would require review under the National Environmental Policy Act, " and, " may take two to three years at a minimum. "

Among the most colorful comments heard came from William Street resident Todd Glenn. He said that more cruise ship passengers would deter the land-based, multi-day tourists, who spend significantly more money, and degrade the overall experience of visiting Key West.

" We're losing them because of this amusement park like atmosphere, " Glenn said, adding that cruise ship passengers were transforming Duval Street into " redneck Disney World meets Myrtle Beach. "

Lots of numbers were presented, but two stood out during the long back-and-forth. Derived from multiple sources including NOAA, the county Tourist Development Council and city's strategic plan, it appears that cruise ship passengers add about $68.7 million a year in spending to Key West's economy, while overnight lodging guests contribute roughly $912 million a year to the local economy.

" We don't want negative impacts from short term visitors reducing the number of longer term visitors, " Mark Songer, president of environmental advocacy group Last Stand, said.

Jim Fitton, the city's director of port operations, said that not pursuing the channel widening would eventually make Key West an obsolete port-of-call.

" They'll bypass us and go straight to Mexico, " he told the packed room. " Royal Caribbean used to be our biggest client. In a couple of years, it'll be down to no boats; that's where we're going. "

In response, many residents who spoke pressed for identification of who exactly asserted that Key West, a popular and relatively safe domestic port, would be crossed off itineraries.

Fitton named Michael Ronan, Royal Caribbean's vice president of government relations for the Caribbean, Latin America and Asia.

From an email Ronan sent Fitton on July 13: " All ships we have built and are planning to build since 2005... cannot call Key West under present channel conditions. We operate our newest, largest ships in the Florida/Gulf and East Coast itineraries.

" As we bring on our newer vessels they replace older, smaller ones on the preferred U.S. itineraries. We presently operate routes that would call Key West if the channel could accommodate them.

" With the opening of the new larger locks in the Panama Canal [scheduled for a 2014 completion] our ship designs for the forseeable [sic] future will be of a size that will not be able to call Key West if the channel is not modified. "