S.C. Supreme Court urged to hear arguments that cruise ships are public nuisance
Carrie Agnew, a resident of downtown Charleston’s Ansonborough neighborhood for more than a decade, says she no longer hears salsa music blaring from Carnival Cruise Lines’ ship when it’s docked at Union Pier, roughly a quarter mile from her house.
But Agnew said public broadcasts from pleasure vessels can be clearly heard as she sits in her home with doors and windows closed. She also is concerned about the fumes from cruise ships while they’re in port, requiring her to scrub soot from her home’s exterior.
“We are just anxious to get people to hear the concerns of the taxpayers, those who support the city year-round, and it’s frustrating,” said Agnew, who is part of an organized effort to place limits on the local cruise industry.
The debate over the big pleasure ships has taken another turn, this time with a court-appointed referee advising the S.C. Supreme Court to hear arguments from groups that say Carnival’s local operation violates city nuisance laws.
Circuit Judge Clifton Newman, who heard arguments months ago in a case brought by preservationists, environmentalists and Charleston neighborhood associations, also is recommending the state’s highest court toss out claims that the company violates local zoning ordinances and state pollution laws.
Newman was named by the Supreme Court to hear the claims by groups seeking limits on Carnival’s business in Charleston.
His 27-page report was submitted Friday. In it, he recommended that the Supreme Court dismiss allegations that cruises violate city zoning rules and the state Pollution Control Act. But Newman also said the plaintiffs should be able to argue before the justices that the vessels are a public nuisance based on the traffic, noise and pollution they generate.
It will be up to the Supreme Court to determine whether the case moves forward.
Both sides have 10 days to file objections before the justices decide on the recommendations. If the nuisance claims go forward, the matter would return to the lower courts for a trial.
Both sides claimed victory Monday.
“We are pleased that the special master recommended rejecting Carnival’s motion to dismiss our nuisance claims and look forward to pressing our case, which seeks to protect citizen health and the natural and historic resources critical to our region’s economy,” said Blan Holman, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “The question is not whether we have cruise operations, but how we balance them with the valuable assets that make this area a great place to visit, live and invest.”
Gordon Schreck, an attorney for the cruise line, said he was reviewing Newman’s report and is considering a response to the Supreme Court.
“In the meantime, we were pleased to note that Judge Newman agreed with our position on both the zoning and pollution control act claims, and recommended that they be dismissed,” Schreck said in a written statement Monday. “We continue to believe that the opposition’s nuisance claims are also without merit, and will await the Court’s decision on that remaining issue.”
Officials at Carnival’s Miami headquarters were not available for comment.
The State Ports Authority and the city of Charleston are helping Carnival defend the suit.
Jim Newsome, the ports authority’s CEO, said he was gratified with Newman’s recommendations about the zoning and environmental claims.
Mayor Joe Riley said cruises “are a maritime activity in a port city, and they are conducted in a very appropriate manner.”
The dispute has been raging for several years. Things heated up in 2010 when Carnival permanently based its 2,056-passenger liner Fantasy at Union Pier, giving the city a year-round pleasure-ship industry for the first time.
Newman’s report comes as more than a half dozen preservationists and neighborhood associations — many of them also involved in the Supreme Court case — are asking state regulators to rescind a recent permit for a new cruise terminal in downtown Charleston.
The SPA wants to relocate its passenger building to a warehouse at the north end of Union Pier, near Laurens Street. The current structure is farther south, near the end of Market Street.
The appeal said the DHEC’s staff failed to look at all impacts of the new terminal in regards to the skyline, water view obstructions, gridlock and pollution.
The appeal asks the agency’s board to reverse the permit approval or consider alternative locations.
The board could take up the issue at its meeting Thursday.
In a letter dated Monday, the State Ports Authority asked the board to deny a final review and make the staff’s approval the final decision.
The Associated Press contributed to this story. Reach Tyrone Richardson at 937-5550 and follow him on Twitter @tyrichardsonPC.