Several groups that have sued to block a new cruise ship terminal in downtown Charleston have drawn the ire of the judge presiding over their case.
S.C. Administrative Law Judge Ralph Anderson III ruled that the coalition of neighborhood associations, preservation organizations and conservationists acted improperly when they turned to the Administrative Law Court to reverse a state permit allowing work to begin on the $35 million project.
Anderson also issued sanctions, ordering the opponents to pay $9,300 to the State Ports Authority for legal fees. That's $11,672 less than the amount initially requested, according to court records.
Anderson this week also denied the coalition's request to gather more evidence in the case. The reopening of the "discovery" process would have potentially pushed back a June 11 court date.
The groups plan to appeal two of Anderson's rulings, said the head of the Coastal Conservation League, one of the plaintiffs.
The SPA said Anderson's decision would accelerate its long-delayed plan to convert an old warehouse at Union Pier into a cruise terminal.
"We are appreciative that the court has recognized the frivolous actions of the cruise opponents in this litigation and denied the request to further delay this issue," the Charleston maritime agency said in a written statement. "We look forward to a speedy resolution to this case allowing Union Pier to have a state-of-the-art cruise terminal on the north end."
In February 2013, project opponents asked the Administrative Law Court, which handles disputes involving state agencies, to review the approval of a permit from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control that allowed pile driving at the proposed terminal site.
Last August, the SPA sought sanctions and dismissal of the lawsuit. It said in a court filing that the lawsuit was "frivolous, lacked any reasonable or defensible grounds of support, and was filed solely for the purpose of delay."
The SPA was supposed to have replaced its aging cruise terminal at the south end of Union Pier near the City Market with a new facility by mid-2012.
Lawyers for the opponents to the proposed site have said the lawsuit was filed over claims that DHEC didn't extensively review the issue before issuing the permit. They alleged that the agency's decision violated the S.C. Coastal Zone Management Act and the Coastal Management Program.
Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, said Tuesday that the groups plan to appeal Anderson's rulings on sanctions and discovery.
He said the plaintiffs took their case to the Administrative Law Court because that's the proper venue.
"This is a procedure laid out in state law to challenge permits," he said. "The way permits are challenged is a legal argument. ... The idea that one interpretation could be a sanctionable action is outrageous."
He added that denying more discovery in the case is wrong.
"Discovery allows us to evaluate the evidence the agencies have and the logic they got for their decision about the permit," he said.
Lawyers for the coalition filed a motion Tuesday seeking to assure that the DHEC permit includes a binding agreement between the SPA and city that limits like the size of cruise ships and the number of annual cruise stops.
The dispute is one of several that have been filed in federal and state courts over cruise operations in downtown Charleston.
The S.C. Supreme Court this year dismissed a lawsuit alleging Carnival Cruise Lines' operations are a nuisance to city residents.
In a separate decision, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel ruled in September that the Army Corps of Engineers didn't fully review the effects the SPA's cruise terminal project would have on the Historic District. Gergel said the federal agency gave the study "a bum's rush." He then ordered the Corps to redo its study with a more extensive review.