State Ports Authority urges courts to solve cruise terminal permit issue
In an apparent effort to speed up the fate of a $35 million new cruise terminal in downtown Charleston, the State Ports Authority is asking state environmental regulators to bypass the issue and allow it be solved in court.
A federal lawsuit seeks to force the Army Corps of Engineers to revisit its decision to issue a federal permit for planned renovation of an old warehouse into a new cruise terminal.
S.C. Supreme Court case alleging Carnival Cruise Lines violates state environmental laws and Charleston zoning and nuisance laws.
An appeal to S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control staff recently approving a permit allowing pilings for the new cruise terminal.
An attorney for SPA sent a 53-page packet to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control on Monday, urging the DHEC board to decline further review of a recent staff approval allowing the SPA to install five pilings at Union Pier.
The port plans to relocate its cruise passenger building to a vacant warehouse at the north end of Union Pier, near Laurens Street. The current structure is farther south, near the end of Market Street.
“Opponents intend on pursuing this matter in a request for a contested case hearing before the South Carolina Admin- istrative Law Court in continuation of their ongoing crusade against the cruise business,” according to a letter from attorney Randolph R. Lowell that was included in the packet.
Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, called the allegations “a foolish statement.”
“What we are doing is the prescribed path that any party who disagrees with a decision, and that is to have the board review the decision,” Beach said. “This is the way the system works.”
Beach added that his group and neighborhood associations and preservationists would rather see the DHEC board take up the issue than fast-forward it to court.
“It’s such a high-profile issue and there are some core questions that need to be addressed,” Beach said. “The board should have some participation in addressing those questions.”
The appeal from the group of more than a half-dozen organizations claims 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.
Neighborhood associations and the other groups have opposed the new terminal site, saying it will bring more tourists, traffic congestion and fumes to the historic district. They also have raised quality-of-life concerns and called for limits on cruise operations.
Lowell’s letter urged the DHEC board to decline another review of the permit and to allow the issue to be heard by the court “in the most expeditious manner possible.”
The board is expected to vote on the issue Thursday. If the panel agrees to a final review process, that could extend the issue with deliberations and appointing a committee to make a decision on behalf of the board.
If the DHEC permit issue gets pushed to the state’s Administrative Law Court, it adds to other legal challenges about cruise operations in the city, including a state Supreme Court case alleging Carnival Cruise Lines violates city ordinances and nuisance laws.
A court-appointed referee earlier this week recommended the state’s highest court hear claims that Carnival’s local operations could violate city nuisance laws.
Circuit Judge Clifton Newman, who heard arguments months ago in the case brought by preservationists, environmentalists and Charleston neighborhood associations, also recommends the panel toss out claims that the company violates local zoning ordinances and state pollution laws.
The case has forced Carnival to halt long-term contract talks with SPA until issues are resolved, according to an affidavit in 2011 by Jim Newsome, CEO of the ports authority.
“Without the long-term cruise line commitment, the Union Pier improvement plan will not be economically viable and will be ended by the Ports Authority,” according to Newsome’s affidavit. “Not only has this lawsuit cut off discussions of such a long term arrangement with Carnival, it sends a negative message to other cruise lines, producing a dampening effect and discouraging calls and commerce in South Carolina.”
SPA spokeswoman Allison Skipper did not answer questions about the length of the current contract with Carnival on Tuesday but said negotiations remain halted.
“They will resume after all issues are settled,” she said. “In the meantime, we feel confident we will more than adequately meet their needs in our existing terminal.”
Officials at Carnival Cruise Lines’ Florida headquarters were not available for comment Tuesday.
The dispute over cruises have been echoing for several years.
It heated up in 2010 when Carnival Cruise Lines permanently based its 2,056-passenger liner Fantasy at Union Pier, giving the city a year-round pleasure-ship industry for the first time.
Before that, dozens of cruise ships called on Charleston.
Beach said the groups are not against cruise operations.
“There is no grand scheme to scuttle the cruise business,” he said. “We want to put in standards regarding how it operates.”
Reach Tyrone Richardson at 843-937-5550 and follow him on Twitter @tyrichardsonPC.