A year and a half of contentious debate over Charleston's cruise industry turned personal Monday when industry opponents filed a lawsuit against the port's No. 1 cruise customer.

Just hours after neighborhood, environmentalist and preservationist groups filed a lawsuit against Carnival Cruise Lines, city and port leaders made an impassioned promise to join the court proceedings against them and to side with the Miami-based company.

The division pits the historic city's famed downtown lifestyle against tourism and the cruise ship industry.

One side sees it as a fight for a way of life -- the very reason people come to see Charleston.

The other sees it as an effort to stifle the city's historic role as a seaport.

The civil suit brought Monday by the Coastal Conservation League, the Preservation Society of Charleston and the city's Ansonborough and Charlestowne neighborhoods claims Carnival is breaking local and state laws. It asks the court to find Carnival's use of the Union Pier Terminal illegal. Blan Holman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said Carnival's current operations cause health and environmental problems.

"We don't think there's ever been a lawsuit filed like this against this industry," Holman said. "If there's any place in the United States where this should get challenged and resolved, it's Charleston."

The ship Carnival Fantasy's home port is Charleston, and the city intends to open a new cruise terminal at Union Pier next year. Port officials said Monday's lawsuit shouldn't affect that time line.

A visibly angry Mayor Joe Riley took to City Hall Council Chambers on Monday morning, flanked by some two dozen port, political and business leaders. He repeatedly called the lawsuit "abusive" and said the idea of challenging whether a ship could dock at the historic port "requires some creativity."

"The lawsuit ... threatens the redevelopment of Union Pier and the economy of our community," Riley said as cruise ship supporters applauded. "We're going to beat them, and we're going to stop this kind of foolishness in our city."

The State Ports Authority also intends to join the lawsuit, and the International Longshoremen's Association Local 1422 planned to vote Monday night on whether the union also will intervene. ILA President Ken Riley worried that the lawsuit could set a dangerous precedent for all maritime business.

"There is a stigma in our community that won't be satisfied until every commercial maritime business has left this community," Riley said.

Carnival officials deferred to the State Ports Authority for comment.

Gov. Nikki Haley issued a statement thanking Carnival for its local business and for "bringing so much to the ... area by filling restaurants and stores and turning the economy -- and by exposing a new crop of visitors to Charleston's beauty, history, and southern charm."

The lawsuit against Carnival marks the most recent development in a saga between the city, the state ports, the company and the city's active residential and preservation groups that began a year and a half earlier. At issue is how to foster the growing cruise ship industry as a part of the city's tourism picture while managing its ill effects, much like city regulations manage ill effects from horse carriages, tour buses and hotel projects.

Last fall, the city and the Ports Authority agreed to capping the ships at no more than 104 visits per year, but the agreement is not legally binding. Residents claim that it offers them no assurance that the number of cruise ships -- which already has grown from 33 to 67 to 89 during the past three years -- won't continue to climb.

Coastal Conservation League Executive Director Dana Beach said no one likes the idea of filing a lawsuit. But, he added, "We reached a point where there is no alternative left."

Beach noted that 28 cruise ships are currently being built to serve 5,000 or more passengers and that the cruise volume internationally has risen from 2.5 million passengers in 1999 to 12 million last year.

"Everybody is planning for more," Beach said. "All of the facts and evidence suggests ... the continuing growth of the industry. Our concern is not what is going on but what could happen over the next decade."

Beach also said the Ports Authority's prime motive is to maximize commerce and revenue from the waterfront, noting that employees are given bonus payments based on volume and revenues.

"The only thing you can trust (State Ports Authority Chief Executive Officer) Jim Newsome for is to represent the best interests of the agency he has," Beach said. "We don't hold him at fault for doing that."

Randy Pelzer of the Charlestowne neighborhood noted that the 1,800-foot-long berth planned at the Port Authority's new passenger terminal could hold two ships the size of the Carnival Fantasy.

Carrie Agnew, an Ansonborough resident, said the cruise ship's salsa music once was turned up so loud she could hear it inside her home with her windows and doors shut. She also worries about smoke and soot from the ships while they're in port.

"To be breathing this is scary," she said. "It's bad enough to see it. ... My concern is people will stop wanting to live here, stop wanting to come here."

One question the lawsuit raises is whether Carnival's Fantasy violates the city's intricate zoning laws, including one that puts the limit on size and locations for new hotels. Environmental leaders note that the Fantasy is twice as large as the largest hotel in Charleston.

Meanwhile, city and port leaders hope a judge will dismiss the lawsuit. John Hassell, vice chairman of the Ports Authority board of directors, noted his agency's mission to serve as an economic engine and described efforts to thwart the cruise industry as "reckless and selfish disregard" for local workers.

Hassell said he learned one simple lesson in his 42-year career: "The foundation of a good quality of life is a job."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5571. Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594.