Justices won’t let SPA take shortcut in cruise battle

The cruise industry in Charleston has sparked legal action over where a new terminal for cruise passengers should be built. The State Ports Authority wanted the Supreme Court to hear an appeal over a state permit to build the terminal, bypassing the appeals court.

An effort to take the battle over a proposed Charleston cruise ship terminal straight to the state’s highest court has been shot down in a move that’s likely to draw out the dispute involving the State Ports Authority, neighborhood groups and preservationists.

The S.C. Supreme Court on Friday denied the SPA’s request to leapfrog the S.C. Court of Appeals. The order did not give a reason for the denial.

The SPA wanted the Supreme Court to hear an appeal over a state permit it received to build the $35 million cruise terminal, saying the issue has such significant public interest that it deserves special treatment. The maritime agency also said in court papers that whoever loses at the appeals court probably will seek to take the case to the high court, making the interim step a waste of time.

The case now will move to the S.C. Court of Appeals. Final briefings have been submitted but no hearing date has been scheduled.

Erin Dhand, spokeswoman for the SPA, said: “We appreciate the Supreme Court’s consideration and look forward to the Court of Appeals finally resolving the issues.”

The Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing environmentalists and neighborhood groups, appealed an administrative law court’s decision last year to issue a permit that would let the SPA put more support pilings beneath a warehouse at Union Pier. That building is the proposed site of the new terminal.

Opponents of the project say it will create more pollution, noise, traffic and other quality-of-life concerns. They want cruise lines to follow municipal laws that protect the city’s environment and historic assets. Cruise ship supporters say the industry is an important part of the area’s tourism economy and a source of jobs.

The state permit was issued in 2012 by the Department of Health and Environmental Control. In the appeal of that decision, an administrative law judge said Charleston residents did not have standing to challenge the terminal’s construction.

“We look forward to having an appeals court review the administrative law judge’s decree that basically no one is entitled to contest the legality of permits issued for a $35 million leisure cruise terminal in historic Charleston,” Blan Holman, a lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement.

A separate federal permit required to build the terminal is being reviewed by the Army Corps of Engineers, which is accepting public comments through Aug. 24. The SPA last week resubmitted its permit application after a federal judge in 2013 tossed its previous application, saying it didn’t consider the terminal’s impact on the Historic District.

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The latest application includes 40,000 pages of documents the SPA says address quality-of-life and other issues raised by the law center. Holman said his group will ask the Army Corps to extend the comment period because of the volume of material. There has been no decision on that request.

The SPA wants to build a new $35 million terminal to replace the 42-year-old facility that handles passengers mostly for Carnival Cruise Lines and its 2,056-passenger Fantasy ship. The new facility would be north of the existing terminal.

The SPA has agreed to limit to 104 the number of cruise ships visits to the Port of Charleston each year, and will not allow any cruise ship larger than 3,500-passenger capacity.

Reach David Wren at 937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren