Planning Commission wants Charleston to find alternative site for cruise ship terminal

Charleston’s Planning Commission voted 8-1 Monday to recommend to City Council that it approve a new tourism plan, with the condition that Council consider a new site for the terminal farther away from the city’s historic district.

Charleston’s long-awaited tourism management plan got a green light to move forward Monday provided city leaders look for an alternative to Union Pier as the site of a new cruise ship terminal.

The city’s Planning Commission voted 8-1 to recommend to City Council that it approve the plan, with the condition that Council consider a new site for the terminal farther away from the city’s historic district. Dozens of people attended the meeting at the Charleston County Public Library on Calhoun Street.

Tourism brings energy, international attention and billions of dollars to Charleston each year. But along with their cash, tourists bring traffic congestion and other issues that impact residents’ quality of life, local residents have said.

City leaders, with the help of a 27-member committee, have been working since December 2013 to update the plan, which hasn’t been updated since 1998. It strives to balance the needs of a strong tourism industry with residents’ concerns.

Tourism is a huge industry in Charleston, said city planning director Tim Keane. Visitors make up 16 percent of the city’s economy. And the industry is growing. The city had 2544 hotel rooms in 1995. Today, it has more than 3,569.

The plan addresses: tourism management and enforcement, visitor orientation, quality of life, special events and mobility and transportation.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said City Council approved the plan for the new terminal on Union Pier four years ago. And it won’t cause traffic congestion, he said, because Concord Street will be opened up and traffic will flow more smoothly.

Council isn’t required to follow the Planning Commission’s recommendation.

Carrie Agnew, executive director of Charleston Communities for Cruise Control, during the public comment portion of the meeting said “We need to re-establish the delicate balance between tourism and the people who live here.”

She remembers a time when she lived on Hassell Street and had to participate in a conference call in her bathroom because a cruise ship had just arrived and there was so much noise she couldn’t hear the call.

And a cruise terminal at Union Pier will make noise and traffic congestion worse, she said. “It absolutely should not be in the historic district.”

Cruise ship supporters have said the industry is an important part of the Lowcountry’s larger tourism economy and a source of jobs.

Opponents said they don’t want to ban all cruise ships, but they want the authority to consider sites other than Union Pier, and sites farther from the city’s historic district, for its new cruise ship terminal. Legal wrangling over that site — the 60 acres between Market, Washington and Laurens streets and the harbor — has slowed the state’s plans to redevelop the blighted area.

Traffic congestion related to tourism was another major concern raised at the meeting.

Keane said one of the key parts of the plan is to build a new visitors center farther north on the peninsula. People can park there and take public transportation to the historic district, he said. That should help alleviate some of the tourist traffic problems.

City Council must approve the plan. It will hold a public hearing and vote on initial approval on May 12. It will vote on whether to give the plan final approval May 26.

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.