As partisans on both sides of Key West's channel-widening controversy prepare to woo voters over the next year, the choice could be seen as a simple one of economic well-being or protection of the area's fragile ecology.
But a deeper examination of the question voters will likely encounter -- whether the city should apply to the Army Corps of Engineers for a preliminary feasibility study of the channel-widening proposal -- reveals a more complex set of issues.
Like the seafloor that some would like to see dredged, so that bigger cruise ships may more safely enter Key West Harbor, many of those issues lie beneath the surface. Experts in environmental policy say people on all sides of the equation need to educate themselves on all sides of the issue, and the consequences that could result.
"The question is whether members of a community are good consumers of information," said Chris Stream, director of the Environmental Public Affairs division at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, which assists communities facing crucial decisions impacting their environments. "When we buy a car, we Google cars, and go through things and figure out what kind of car we would buy. But we are willing with decisions like this to ignore that, to go for the single voice that comes in and puts it together for us, often saying they can create one silver bullet. But there is no one silver bullet."
Supporters of the channel widening say the study is just that, a study, and that no commitment will inure to Key West beyond that. Detractors say that doing the study opens a Pandora's box of possibilities, and that the whole issue is best left alone.
Experts in the field of environmental regulations and processes say there are merits to both arguments. Some, however, say a "yes" to the study is likely a "yes" to eventually seeing the channel-widening work done, if not with Key West's blessings then with those of some other entity, such as the state of Florida.
"It is a potential; I am not saying it would happen, but there is certainly a risk," said Robert Glicksman, the J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Professor of Environmental Law at George Washington University. "The practical reality is that when an agency like the corps pours a lot of money into a project like this, there is some degree of reluctance to abandon a project into which that much money has already been sunk. It may be difficult to move the agency off of its determination to go ahead with the project. Even if they haven't gotten to a point where there is a firm commitment, the more vested the agency is, the more likely harder it is to convince it that the project should be scrapped."
Robin Craig, a former Florida State University environmental law professor who now teaches at the University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law, says putting the question of the study to the people, and its possible approval, because of the intense nature of such a study, could go a long way toward settling important questions once and for all.
"It will be a can of worms, but better to have a better idea of what they are talking about. If your concern was, is this just a way of starting the snowball downhill, I would say not necessarily," Craig said of commissioning the study. "It is a wise move. I do know of places where that has been done with potentially major projects that have obvious environmental impacts on a sanctuary, which is a moneymaker and federally protected, but where there are fairly intense ramifications for commercial businesses. It is not unusual at the federal level for Congress or an agency to commission the National Academy of Sciences or the National Research Council, to look at what we are not thinking about, what we should be thinking about, before you are in any permitting process or legislative process."
It is not just the city, or the state, or the corps that would be acting in a vacuum when such a study is done, Craig said.
"Whatever those entities might decide, the number of things triggered on that channel-widening are considerable," Craig said. "It is going to trigger portions of the Rivers and Harbors Act; it might have to go through Congress. The state of Florida has a federally approved coastal zone management program and Florida is going to have to sign off."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other agencies would likely be involved.
Attorneys note that if the channel-widening is seen as feasible once the three-year, $3 million study is done -- assuming voters approve commissioning it -- there is another level of oversight.
Should Key West and the corps or Florida and the corps decide to move ahead with the channel-widening, a new review process, under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), would occur. That could take three years or more, regulatory experts said, and would involve input from the agencies already mentioned as well as the public.
It is also during this process that the potential could arise for litigation, perhaps brought by environmental advocacy groups, attorneys said.
Through all of the processes, some experts said, an important question will linger: whether the act of widening the channel would have its desired effect, bolstering the economy of Key West by attracting cruise ships.
"If you build it, will they come?" Stream asked rhetorically.
Some industry trends, such as cruise companies bringing passengers to private islands they own or have developed, give pause for thought, Stream said.
John Dolan-Heitlinger, spokesman for the Key West Seaport Alliance -- a group of business owners who support the channel widening -- said he is confident there will be enough cruise business despite those trends to make the study as well as the channel-widening worthwhile.
"In talking with the folks in the industry, they have lots of things that go into determining where they go, how much do their customers like a place," Heitlinger said. "Generally they give Key West high marks. They like us. We are convenient with them coming out of Fort Lauderdale and other ports ... . In the eight or 10 years it will take, I believe that given the vessels that will be serving the market, we will have more ships. I don't believe we are going to add a whole lot. They indicate the ships are going to be bigger and if we don't have this widening, we are going to see a reduction over time in the ships that visit here."
A vital tile in the mosaic of arguments is the regulation barring dredging.
"It is prohibited in the sanctuary," said Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary Superintendent Sean Morton. "There has been no dredging other than maintenance dredging. You are taking the seafloor and dropping it. You are widening the channel, but you are still deepening part of the sanctuary."
Morton doesn't know what kind of coral might live in the place where the dredging would occur. A study would be needed to determine that. He does know what kinds of coral were recovered when the Navy completed its own dredging project, permitted because the rules allow certain military objectives.
There is a process for requesting permission to do many things in the sanctuary, outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations. And a "no" from the sanctuary superintendant, according to the rules themselves, could mean an appeal to higher authorities within the sanctuary hierarchy, which is organized under the auspices of the NOAA, itself under the umbrella of the Department of Commerce.
It is possible, experts said, that lobbyists could appeal for a change in the regulations or for an approval at higher levels. All of that, regulatory experts note, costs money and takes time.
What partisans on both sides of the equation maintain is that the decision to commission or not commission the study will have an indelible effect on the future of Key West and on the view the island takes of itself.
That, said University of Nevada's Stream, is why voters need to start learning everything they can now.
"Data has meaning," Stream said. "So no matter what the study says, it will be one of a kind and become the voice of whatever is decided and it can be a powerful voice ... . Is it feasible to do it? Probably. Could it be widened, and if so, does that necessarily create economic strength?"
The industry or the community could change during the study process, Stream said, or during the NEPA process that might follow. He added that with controversies like this one, even when compromise is reached, the outcomes are not always so good.
"The happily ever after rarely happens," he said.