The Referendum To Nowhere


Issue 25 coralhugger for web

Naja and Arnaud Girard……

Can you stand another channel widening article?  This one will surprise you – we promise.

Interviews with representatives of the US Army Corp of Engineers and NOAA/Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary revealed that nearly everything we have heard so far about the $ 3 Million dollar dredging feasibility study has been wrong. There won’t be a study about local economic impacts. In fact, there is not even going to be a study, regardless of the outcome of the referendum on October 1st.

As it stands, Sanctuary regulations prohibit dredging and according to Sean Morton, Superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, “Current regulations do not provide a mechanism to permit this type of dredging.”  As long as regulations prohibit dredging in the Sanctuary, “I do not believe that Corps of Engineers will commit study funds to do the study,” says Eric Bush, Chief, Planning and Policy Division, USACE, Jacksonville.   Bush says the Army Corp will not pursue funding a study unless they get a ‘head nod’ from those in charge of the Sanctuary.

So the next question is:  Will Sanctuary officials move to change the law?  “Our role,” says Morton, “is to manage and protect Sanctuary resources. Typically regulatory changes result in tightening up resource protections, not loosening them. We have zero plans to initiate a change in regulations that would facilitate this dredging project.” Morton says, “There will be no ‘head nod’”.

Let’s see if we understand this correctly:  The Army Corp will only contemplate conducting a feasibility study if there is a change in the law prohibiting dredging and Sanctuary officials do not intend to change the law.  So, why are we even voting on this?  “The day after the referendum our regulations [prohibiting dredging] will be exactly the same,” says Morton.

So, what is this referendum meant to achieve?

That is the interesting question and the answer comes through in one simple fact:  Dredging in the Keys has become taboo.  As recently as this past April, the County Commission unanimously refused to loosen their local ban on new dredging.  In Key West opposition to dredging is just as fierce.

But if you own Pier B or a Conch Train and you make millions of dollars off cruise ships you do have to worry about making things convenient for them.  This concern is not imaginary paranoia.  The cruise ship industry is extraordinarily fickle and temperamental.  Overnight, for a myriad of reasons, the entire industry can decide to skip a port of call.  It does happen.  In Houston cruise ships completely disappeared after cruise companies realized their passengers liked Galveston better, leaving the City millions of dollars in debt for its 7-year old $ 108 Million empty terminal.  Norfolk, Baltimore, Alabama, Boston, Honolulu and San Diego have all suffered a similar fate.   Arguably, the size of the channel could be one of those factors.  But without local support it might be very hard to convince NOAA or the US Congress to give up the dredging ban that stands in the way of channel widening.  And that is the pickle.

But, if you are a student of Machiavelli, you might try this 1-2-3 combo chess maneuver:

  1. Propose a referendum, not on dredging, but on a study: “we’re simply going to collect some free in-depth information about our local economy to help us decide.”
  2. Dress up the study as a popular endorsement of channel widening.
  3. Using the supposed “local support” lobbyists in Washington get the Sanctuary regulations amended to allow dredging a wider channel into Key West.

The entire scheme relies on the fact that Key Westers will agree that simply collecting data about the impacts that channel widening will have on the local economy is, after all, very reasonable.

But, here is the proof that this whole affair has been set up under false pretenses:  Even if there were going to be a study, it would have absolutely nothing to do with Key West businesses.  The Army Corp will not be studying how many more ice-cream cones, T-shirts or Conch Train rides would be sold or not sold depending on the width of our channel.

“With respect to effects on the local economy,” says Eric Bush,

as a policy matter, USACE only considers National Economic Benefits (i.e., net effect/increases in goods and services on the national economy).  Although local effects are very important, we purposefully don’t evaluate second and third order effects on local economies (jobs created, multipliers, etc) as part of the benefit-cost ratio for a federal navigation project.  Upon first hearing that, this does not make sense to most people.  But I think it creates a level playing field for investment decisions by Congress.  If we counted local jobs created, net regional effects etc, bigger cities w bigger populations would always be the winners.”

So, the whole charade is revealed.  There is not going to be a study of our local economy. There is not even going to be a study – even if the referendum passes.  What is going to happen, if the pro “study” group plays their cards right and wins the referendum, is the result will be taken to Washington to help lobbyists convince NOAA and Congress to lift the ban on dredging.

No matter what the particular language of the referendum, if it passes the appearance will be that Key West favors dredging. Who in his right mind will believe that Key Westers requested a channel widening feasibility study, to be paid for with millions of everybody’s hard-earned tax-dollars, if in fact they didn’t want to dredge the channel?

Those who rely on cruise ship revenue have legitimate concerns about Key West’s ability to compete in a tough market.  They deserve real consideration and support, but the ‘smoke and mirrors’ tactics with falsely portrayed studies and meaningless referendums don’t help.

As it stands, make no mistake, the October 1st referendum is not about studying anything of any interest to Key Westers, it is a tool destined to be used to promote lifting the ban on dredging in the Sanctuary.


To have a look at what a feasibility report and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) would look like:

You may download the recently-completed draft feasibility report and EIS for the Port Everglades and the Jacksonville Harbor projects @:

Scroll down on the page to Broward County for Port Everglades, and Duval County for Jacksonville Harbor.

Last updated at 11:47 am, Friday August 30, 2013

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  5 Responses to “The Referendum To Nowhere”

  1. Bravo!

    Consider – Since when did something being illegal ever deter Key West?

  2. The Port Everglades study should leave everyone concerned about whether the Army Corps practices junk-science when it comes to justifying projects it wants to approve. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which partnered the actual Environmental Impact Statement has criticized the Army Corps because the latest draft omits NMFS previous input on impacts to coral reefs and threatened coral – specifically, threatened Elkhorn and Staghorn coral, nor does it adequately address the level of impacts on seagrasses, turbidity or cumulative impacts on water quality.

    It further criticizes the study for underestimating the amount and adequacy of mitigation required. If the issue cannot be resolved, the NMFS is considering various appeal strategies, including referring the matter to the President’s Council on Environmental Quality.

  3. If one were truly Machiavellian, then they could see an even greater long-term goal. Just ask a simple question: How else can dredging benefit the real Key West power brokers?

    Take this hypothetical: It is inevitable that ownership of Christmas Tree Island is going to be officially assigned within the next year or two to F.E.B. Corporation. They have enough legitimate arguments to win their case, and all it takes is a simple ruling from a single judge, and that drama is over. Everything that has happened to this point with the Federal government claiming ownership has just been smoke and mirrors. This will just clear up all the loose ends and finally make the F.E.B. ownership official.

    Once that happens, F.E.B. will receive a new land title and will argue that the earlier restriction of allowing only two housing units is moot, and F.E.B. will be allowed to place the 200+ units there that they have always wanted.

    What little natural environment that may have existed on Christmas Tree will be eliminated by the invasive trees that have taken over, and the entire island will be bulldozed.

    Preparing the island for the condos and resort that will be built there will require a huge amount of fill. Look at what happened in preparation for Sunset Key. Same thing. How many feet was Sunset Key raised with fill? Where is all that Christmas Tree fill going to come from? Bingo! Dredging the channel.

    Check the size of Christmas Key Island and the amount of dredging that is being requested. There isn’t too much difference in size of the dredging and the amount of fill that needs to be placed on Christmas Tree to bring it up to the same height as Sunset Key.

    A study somewhere along the way will recommend that the dredged material be used as land fill because it is more environmentally friendly to use that material as fill rather than hauling it offshore and dumping. Another study will identify Christmas Tree Island as the perfect location to receive the fill. End of story.

    I’m probably being overly paranoid as well as suffering from the lingering effects of a beer or two too many last night, but this IS Key West, and I wouldn’t believe that this scenario would be completely out of the question. Right?

    • Not an entirely unlikely scenario; I don’t imagine the seed for this “study” and getting it out to referendum was not planted in the bright sunshine, but it’s hard to ignore the interest of locals who profit from cruise ships calling on Key West, and isn’t that what this referendum really is about – dredging the channel wider to bring in more of the same kind of cruise ships now calling on Key West, which cannot crab into the present channel when the wind is wrong; and bringing in bigger cruise ships.

  4. A script writer who turned in a manuscript for a documentary based on the bizarre channel marking charade would be accused of creating fiction — the whole premise would be deemed too preposterous to be true.

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