Environmental and historic preservation groups opposed to a new cruise ship terminal on Charleston's peninsula are asking the state Supreme Court to review a lower court's ruling that helped clear the way for construction.
Terminal opponents are hoping the state's highest court will overturn a November decision by the S.C. Court of Appeals, which ruled the groups do not have a legal right to stop state regulators from issuing a permit that would let the project proceed.
Opponents say cruise ships and their passengers would create additional traffic and pollution that threatens their health and property values.
The Supreme Court has not said whether it will review the case.
"We hope the South Carolina Supreme Court stands up for the public's ability to question state pollution permits," Jason Crowley, communities and transportation director of the Coastal Conservation League, said in a statement.
Crowley said the terminal "not only puts our community's health and the environment in peril, it threatens the very fabric of Charleston's National Historic Landmark district that visitors come to experience and enjoy."
The State Ports Authority, which wants to build the terminal just north of an existing one at Union Pier, applauded the appeals court decision and said it looks forward to moving ahead with construction.
"Cruise is an important segment of our maritime business, and we look forward to the day when we have a modern cruise terminal that reflects the beauty of Charleston ... and can make the remainder of the Union Pier property available for non-maritime redevelopment," Jim Newsome, the SPA's president and CEO, said at the time of the lower court's ruling.
The SPA has been trying for years to build a $43 million terminal for cruise ship passengers on the north end of Union Pier. While the SPA says the new terminal would improve traffic flow, opponents say the terminal — three times larger than the existing one — would add to congestion by bringing 1,600 cars and dozens of trucks, buses and taxis to the area on a regular basis.
The appeals court said opponents did not provide any evidence that they would suffer direct harm from a new terminal. Instead, they "presented only speculative claims that the proposed passenger terminal would adversely affect their property values and businesses," the ruling stated.
"South Carolinians have the right to ask a court to review a government decision that affects them," said Blan Holman, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing the opponents. "Lower courts closed the courthouse door to citizens whose health and welfare are threatened by more pollution and (state regulators') permission slip."
The case centers around a permit the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control issued in 2012 allowing the SPA to place five additional clusters of support pilings beneath an existing warehouse. That's where the maritime agency wants to build a new terminal, replacing a nearby 1970s-era building used mostly by Carnival Cruise Line.
Terminal opponents say DHEC issued the permit without completing an analysis of the effects on nearby neighborhoods or considering alternative locations. The S.C. Administrative Law Court said in 2014 the opponents don't have a right to challenge the permit, setting up the appeal.
The SPA also needs a federal permit to proceed with the project. The Army Corps of Engineers is reviewing an application for that permit but has not set a timetable for its decision. A previous permit application was tossed out by a federal judge in 2013 because the proposal did not consider the terminal’s impact on the city’s Historic District.
Charleston is becoming a popular destination for cruise ships, with volume growing 18.5 percent since 2015 to 224,105 passengers during the SPA's most recent fiscal year. However, the SPA has put voluntary limits on the number and size of cruise ships to help address concerns such as traffic and impact on city resources.
The groups opposing the new terminal include: Preservation Society of Charleston; Historic Charleston Foundation; Historic Ansonborough Association; Coastal Conservation League; Charlestowne Neighborhood Association; the Charleston chapter of the Surfrider Foundation; and Charleston Communities for Cruise Control.