Regional business leaders gathered on the pier at Charleston's Waterfront Park, with the cruise ship Fantasy towering behind them Monday, to denounce a lawsuit filed against Carnival Cruise Lines.

They called the June 13 complaint by the Coastal Conservation League, Preservation Society of Charleston and the Ansonborough and Charlestowne neighborhoods a frivolous attack on the free enterprise system, the region's economy and Charleston's ports.

The news conference was the latest salvo in a tit-for-tat of competing claims, hearings, opinion articles and ads both for and against the cruise ship business and the State Ports Authority's plan to build a new cruise terminal at downtown Union Pier Terminal.

"This is just the first shot in the attempt to dismantle the Port of Charleston," said Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce Chairman Bobby Pearce.

The lawsuit claims Carnival, the

world's largest cruise ship operator, "is violating numerous laws" dealing with zoning and aesthetic issues such as building height and the size of signs, as well as the South Carolina Pollution Control Act. The suit principally seeks a judgment that it is illegal for Carnival to use Union Pier.

"This is ridiculous," said Steve Carroll, speaking for the Charleston Restaurant Association. "We're trying to survive."

He said restaurants and other businesses benefit from cruise ship passengers. The Fantasy can carry nearly 2,000.

Several speakers at Waterfront Park sought to reinforce the perception that cruise ship opponents are wealthy downtown residents upset about additional tourists wandering around and peeking into their gardens. At a pro-Port rally in May, some people carried signs that said "Jobs not Snobs."

Charleston Trident Home Builders Association President Jeff Meyer said supporters of the lawsuit are "NIMBYs (not in my backyard) who don't want to share" what Charleston has to offer, while Pearce, a former downtown resident, criticized "northern retirees who have taken over neighborhood groups."

Several speakers said they were disturbed that the lawsuit was filed not against the SPA, or the city, but against Carnival.

They suggested the action could have a chilling effect on other companies considering doing business in Charleston.

While business leaders said the lawsuit is aimed at driving Carnival away, the attorney who filed the suit disagreed.

"The question isn't whether the cruise ship industry will operate in Charleston; the question is how," said Blan Holman, with the Southern Environmental Law Center. "The plaintiffs are members of the community who believe the cruise industry should abide by standards just like every other business does."

No one from Carnival Cruise Lines spoke at the event Monday, and the company has neither commented upon the litigation nor filed a response in court. Despite being filed a week before Carnival released its quarterly earnings report, the lawsuit has received little attention in the financial press.

Carrie Agnew, chair of Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association Cruise Ship Committee, said the lawsuit was a last resort after the city and SPA were unwilling to accept legally binding limits on the cruise ship business.

"We don't like lawsuits, but if that's what it takes to get people to listen to us, then that's what we have to do," she said.

"Now we're being vilified and demonized and called NIMBYs and elitists," Agnew said. "But living downtown, we probably support these (local) businesses a lot more than the cruise passengers."

Reach David Slade at 937-5552.