Those who want reasonable limits to Charlestonís cruise industry should be allowed to present their case in court, according to a ďrefereeĒ appointed to analyze their complaints and make recommendations to the S.C. Supreme Court.

That is good news. The contentious cruise issue has pitted the State Ports Authority and Mayor Joe Riley against citizens, preservation and conservation groups, and neighborhood associations. It needs a thorough airing. The divide between the two sides isnít shrinking.

Carnivalís cruise ship Fantasy is home-based in Charleston. The mayor says that is a financial plus for Charleston and says the SPAís pledge not to grow the business without first going to the public is good enough for him.

Citizens and groups involved in the lawsuit say they havenít seen the financial advantage. They want enforceable, reasonable limits to the size and number of cruise ships that visit Charleston, and the frequency of their calls. The SPA hasnít agreed to such limits, and the city hasnít pushed for them.

Circuit Judge Clifton Newman indicated that the court should hear charges that noise, congestion, traffic and soot from cruise ships are a nuisance to the peninsula.

If the Supreme Court heeds his advice, the case will be heard in a lower court.

But, not surprisingly, Judge Newman also recommended the Supreme Court dismiss charges regarding Carnivalís environmental impact, saying the cruise line meets federal guidelines.

Further, he thinks the court should reject the notion that cruise ships should be governed by the city zoning ordinances.

The S.C. Supreme Court is not compelled to follow any of Judge Newmanís advice. But doing so could be an important step reaching an accord on the contentious issue. Clearly, the rifts arenít going away,

Those seeking enforceable controls over the cruise industry, despite Judge Newmanís legal opinion, see the cruise ships as floating hotels for 3,500 that dwarf downtown hotels but donít have to follow the rules hotels do. The advocates for cruise control are not a small group of whiners and ďsnobs,Ē as cruise supporters have charged.

And they are not just local. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has put Charleston on a watch list as an endangered place because of the cruise industryís impact. Both Ansonborough and Charlestowne neighborhoods fear losing National Register status.

The Preservation Society is concerned lest its historic easements could be impaired.

The Charleston County Medical Society and the S.C. Medical Association have both resolved that emissions from cruise ships are a threat to peopleís health.

Meanwhile, more than a half-dozen neighborhood associations and preservationists last week asked the Department of Health and Environmental Control to rescind a permit allowing the State Ports Authority to drive piles for a new cruise terminal.

It is a pity that the cruise question ended up in litigation. It could have been averted in an efficient and friendly way with some simple legal limits.

Certainly, the city has gone the extra mile in regulating other less intrusive tourism-related operations.

Optimally, Judge Newmanís recommendation will force the issue of regulating cruise ships to protect what preservationists have dubbed ďthe delicate balanceĒ of tourism, business and residential living.