A state Supreme Court decision Wednesday clears what has been described as a major hurdle in efforts to keep cruise ship operations in downtown Charleston.
Three lawsuits opposed growing cruise operations in downtown Charleston:
S.C. Supreme Court
Preservation and environmental groups, along with downtown Charleston neighborhood groups alleged Carnival Cruise Lines' year-round cruises violate the city's noise, public nuisance and sign ordinances.
Status: The high court tossed out the case Wednesday, saying the opposing groups lacked "standing" in the lawsuit.
S.C. Administrative Law Court
A coalition of local environmentalists and downtown Charleston neighborhood groups asked the court to review a S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control permit allowing pilings to support a proposed $35 million new cruise passenger terminal at Union Pier, saying the decision violated parts of the S.C. Coastal Zone Management Act and the Coastal Management Program.
Status: Judge has not made decision yet
U.S. District Court
The Coastal Conservation League and the Preservation Society of Charleston filed the lawsuit after the Army Corps of Engineers issued a permit allowing the five pilings to support the cruise terminal, alleging the federal agency didn't take into account the impact on historic properties that surround the area.
Status: Federal judge ordered Army Corps to redo study with more extensive review.
The ruling also could open the door for a long-term deal between the State Ports Authority and Carnival Cruise Lines.
The state's high court dismissed a lawsuit alleging Carnival's operations are a nuisance to city residents.
The Preservation Society of Charleston, the Coastal Conservation League and downtown Charleston neighborhood groups filed the complaint about three years ago, alleging Carnival's year-round cruises violate the city's noise, public nuisance and sign ordinances.
The five-member panel ruled unanimously that opponents "lacked standing" in the lawsuit. The court's 11-page opinion stated that the opposing groups lacked claims that the city residents they represent suffered any harm from Carnival's operations.
"These allegations are simply complaints about inconveniences suffered broadly by all persons residing in or passing through the City of Charleston and therefore, Plaintiffs fail to establish the first element of standing," according to the ruling.
Blan Holman, managing attorney for the Charleston office of the Southern Environmental Law Center and a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the ruling failed to answer the legality of cruise ships' harm on Charleston.
"We're disappointed that after two years the court refused to pass on the legality of Carnival's operation and instead dismissed the case on a legal technicality that the claims should have been brought by individual property owners rather than neighborhood associations and other groups," Holman said in a written statement. "If the upshot of the order is that individual property owners have to file separate lawsuits, then resolving the underlying legal merits will have gotten more cumbersome and resource intensive for everyone."
He added that individual property owners have expressed interest in refiling the nuisance case.
The ruling was one of two decisions by the Supreme Court.
Last year, the high court dismissed the noise and sign claims. But the panel also requested new written arguments about whether the cruises are a public nuisance or violate local zoning rules. That was based on the recommendations from a special referee.
The Supreme Court case was one of three lawsuits opposing cruise operations in the historic city.
The dispute over cruises heated up in 2010, when Carnival permanently based its 2,056-passenger liner Fantasy at Union Pier. That gave the city a year-round pleasure-ship industry for the first time. Previously, a handful of seasonal cruises originated in Charleston.
Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen said the cruise line was happy with the court's decision.
"We are pleased with the court's ruling and look forward to our continued partnership with the South Carolina Ports Authority and ongoing year-round cruise operations from Charleston on the Carnival Fantasy," he said in a written statement.
The State Ports Authority and city of Charleston, which joined the Supreme Court case as defendants, had similar praises.
Mayor Joe Riley said the decision affirmed his thoughts he had about the allegations years ago.
"It's certainly the news I expected," he said. "The lawsuit was almost laughable to begin with, and it's unfortunate that so much time and money has been wasted in a lawsuit where they had no basis."
Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the SPA, described the case as an "unprecedented lawsuit brought against a global brand" and port customer.
"Given the public interest in this case, we are gratified that the State Supreme Court, in its original jurisdiction, affirms that Carnival has been operating responsibly and lawfully in Charleston at Union Pier Terminal," he said.
Newsome added that the ruling likely could nudge Carnival to sign a long-term contract with SPA, a deal he said has been shelved until the outcome of the case.
Carnival suspended negotiations and has been operating under an extension of a three-year contract signed in 2010, he said.
A long-term contract with the cruise operator would further justify SPA's plans to build a $35 million new cruise terminal at the north end of Union Pier.
The maritime agency has been seeking to relocate its aging passenger terminal to the south for about three years.
Those plans, however, have been delayed by lawsuits challenging federal and state permits for the project.
Newsome addressed the Supreme Court lawsuit during SPA's board of directors meeting in downtown Charleston on Wednesday. He said the focus is now on replacing the passenger terminal.
"We're glad to get that behind us and we have to move forward now with locating a new terminal at Union Pier, redeveloping the area and having a proper cruise operation here in Charleston," Newsome said.
Neighborhood associations and the other groups are opposed to the new terminal site. They also are calling for limits on cruise operations.
The opposing groups also want the SPA to add shoreside power at Union Pier, instead of allow cruise ships to burn fuel while idling at the terminal.
The group's claimed a victory on the issue last week when state Reps. Jim Merrill and Leon Stavrinakis announced plans to authorize up to $5 million to install the necessary equipment at the SPA passenger terminal at Union Pier.
Merrill, R-Charleston, and Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, both serve on the House Ways and Means Committee. They expect their proposal to be included in this year's budget.
The SPA released a statement last week applauding the efforts by Merrill and Stavrinakis, but the agency stopped short of fully endorsing shoreside power for cruise ships.
The maritime agency instead said it would look to pursue other technologies.