A long-standing disagreement between charter fishermen and management of Key West's historic public dock came to a head this week when the fishermen made a plea before city commissioners for relief from proposed rules concerning signs, their ability to sit under umbrellas while booking trips and other issues.
About a dozen charter captains and their supporters attended a Tuesday night meeting of the Caroline Street Corridor and Bahama Village Redevelopment Advisory Committee, where a new lease for commercial slips was under consideration.
Commissioners approved most of the terms of the lease -- including a rent increase the charter owners did not oppose -- but they did not approve the proposed regulations.
"We want to keep Key West with the character of Key West, not to change everything like any other city in the United States," said Commissioner Billy Wardlow. "It's got the funkiness still -- we can keep some areas of town like the original Key West was. And that's what people come here to see. It was live and let live. The people were able to enjoy themselves and have their chairs on the dock and be able to relax, have a beer, talk to guests and fishermen, that's what they enjoy seeing."
The rules would have changed the signs advertising each charter boat from the current size of about 2 feet-by-18 inches to 8-by-20 inches.
"Imagine trying to sell someone on your trip when they would need a magnifying glass just to read the thing, and if your boat sits more than a few yards off the boardwalk, they won't be able to read it," said Moe Mottice, owner of the boats Reel Lucky and Reel Lucky Too, as he held a paper the size of the proposed new sign in front of commissioners. "Keep in mind that our boats will be out on the water and we will be relying on our signage and the funkiness of the marina to sell, gather, and promote our businesses. ... We would suggest giving up on this part of the gentrification of the marina and leave the signs as they are. In all my years in the marina I have never heard anyone complain or get mad over anyone's sign. The signage is part of the funkiness and draw to the area and should remain as part of the historic value of the area."
The new rules also would have removed additional signs displayed by charters, including those that tout 50 percent discounts for veterans.
The report, prepared by city Property Manager Marilyn Wilbarger and her staff, made an argument for new rules, stressing their contention that they were not unwieldy or overly burdensome.
"Staff understands that this is the Historic Seaport and the intent is not to make the docks look like a Fort Lauderdale marina, but to put some consistency into the dock boxes and signage currently located throughout the marina," the report states. "The updated signage policy which the rules reference is also an attempt to standardize the size and number of signs allowed at commercial tenant slips. This policy does not dictate that everyone have the same sign. It outlines a not-to-exceed size limit and also limits the number of signs each customer can have."
Approval by the Historic Architectural Review Commission, the report states, would be required for each sign.
Fishermen also complained about a proposal that only approved dock boxes be allowed.
"There are many nice white fiberglass dock boxes throughout the marina, which is what the new rules dictate, but there are also brown and green Rubbermaid yard boxes, homemade sheds, dilapidated semi-painted wooden boxes, etc., that are not what you would expect to see on normal marina docks," the report states. "There also is the problem with some tenants deciding they need more than one dock box to store their gear. Additional dock boxes clutter the docks and infringe on neighboring slips."
Another contentious point involved the removal of a fish-cleaning table that now stands on the dock, and replacement with a new one closer to land.
Overall, fishermen agreed, the biggest problem is lack of communication with marina staff. Decisions, they said, are made without their input. By the time those decisions come before the Key West Bight Board, fishermen can't attend because they are out fishing during the day, when the meetings are held.
Toward that end, commissioners said they want the Bight Board to change its meetings from daytime to night. Some commissioners individually expressed shock that there were plans to eliminate the artificial marlin that hangs at the marina, a symbolic reminder, some say, of the days when Ernest Hemingway fished here.
"What we really need to get across to the marina management is that they need to come down and communicate more with the tenants and talk about changes that they would like to make," Mottice said in an interview.
"We are willing to compromise, but they must be willing to communicate with us. Putting a fish-cutting station clear up on land where there is no place for you to wash the scales and the blood, you can't do that."
Tom Stroh of the Key West Bight Preservation Association says the fishermen have a point.
"To me, personally, that is an important weave of the fabric of the Key West Bight," he said. "There are many subtle threads to that fabric that altogether make it what it is. My feeling is the hard thing is to do changes that don't detract from what has been successful, with what we have already."
Stroh said he was pleased with the dialogue between fishermen and the commission. He was hopeful that new meeting times allowing maximum participation and a focus on communication will help.
Bight Board member Harry Bowman, who has voted in favor of fishermen and thus been in the minority on management issues, says rule changes have been proposed in the past but never gone this far.
"I think it is important to clean up the Bight," he said. "But what they are doing is ruining the historical ambiance of the place."