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Almost 4 years on, SC cruise plan still in court

Saturday - 6/22/2013, 12:29pm  ET

The cruise liner Crystal Symphony leaves the harbor in Charleston, S.C., on May 21, 2013. With cases in state, federal and South Carolina Administrative Law Court, it will be 2014 at the earliest before legal questions about a new Charleston cruise terminal and the city's year-round cruise industry will be resolved. (AP Photo/Bruce Smith)

BRUCE SMITH
Associated Press Writer

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) -- It's been almost four years since the South Carolina Ports Authority announced plans to build a new $35 million cruise terminal in downtown Charleston. Under the original schedule, that terminal would be open now. Instead, questions about the terminal and the city's year-round cruise industry raised by environmental and neighborhood groups have ended up in court.

Lawsuits are in state and federal court, and an administrative law judge in January will hear concerns about a permit issued by state regulators for the terminal at the site of an existing warehouse. Final resolution won't come until next year at the earliest.

According to court schedules:

-- The state Supreme Court has given attorneys until July 8 to file briefs on whether cruises constitute a public nuisance and violate city zoning ordinances. This is in a state case the court agreed to hear without it first going through lower courts. The Preservation Society of Charleston, the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League and neighborhood groups have sued Carnival Cruise Lines seeking to block cruise operations and have the court declare it illegal to build the terminal.

-- A November trial date has tentatively been set in federal court for a lawsuit brought by the Conservation League and the Preservation Society against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In the case, moved from Washington, D.C. last year, the plaintiffs seek to invalidate a Corps permit saying more federal review of the terminal's effect on the city's historic district is needed.

-- Chief South Carolina Administrative Law Judge Ralph Anderson has set a Jan. 27 date to hear a challenge of a Department of Health and Environmental Control permit allowing five pilings to be drilled for the project. Regulators have said putting in pilings is in line with what has been going on along the waterfront for centuries. Any decision by the court can then be appealed to state court.

Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the Ports Authority, all three cases raise important issues that need to be resolved not just for the cruise industry, but for the operation of the port in general.

"We're not in a rush," he said. "We will see these things through in a proper way."

The dispute over the terminal and the city's expanded cruise industry has been raging for several years. Three years ago, Carnival Cruise Lines permanently based its 2,056-passenger liner Fantasy in Charleston, giving the city a year-round cruise industry. Before that, cruise lines made port calls at Charleston, but no ships were based in the city.

Opponents say the added tourists, traffic congestion and smoke from the cruise liners are destroying the historic fabric of the city. The city and Ports Authority say the industry is being managed properly and cruises will never be more than a niche industry in Charleston.

Blan Holman, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, says it's about balance between cruise operations and protecting the city's historic character, upon which tourism and the cruise industry depend.

"We are hopeful that the city of Charleston will agree it has the power, and the responsibility, to oversee a cruise operation based in Charleston," he said in a statement. "The city of Charleston has exerted its authority to safeguard the harbor and surrounding community for hundreds of years."

Newsome is optimistic the issues will be resolved and the terminal project will go forward.

"We are going to build a new cruise terminal at the northern end of Union Pier, and we are going to keep a modest-size cruise industry as we have said all along," he said.


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