A case that will help decide whether the State Ports Authority builds a new terminal for cruise ships near downtown Charleston is headed to the state's Supreme Court.
South Carolina's top court agreed on Tuesday to hear an appeal of a lower court's ruling that would have let the project move forward. The state Court of Appeals ruled in November that environmental and historic preservation groups don't have a legal right to stop state regulators from issuing a permit that would allow construction of a new terminal.
"This is good news for neighbors seeking to ensure that traffic and pollution from thousands of vehicles using a large terminal are minimized as the law requires," said Blan Holman, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing groups opposed to the project.
"The lower courts said these families and businesses had no right to question unlawful (regulatory) approvals," he said. "We will ask the Supreme Court to restore those rights, which are vital to keeping government in check and accountable to citizens across South Carolina."
Erin Dhand, spokeswoman for the ports authority, said the agency has no comment on the Supreme Court's decision.
The SPA has been trying for years to build a $43 million terminal for cruise passengers on the north end of Union Pier. While the authority says the new site would improve traffic flow, opponents say the facility — three times larger than the existing building near the end of Market Street — 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, in its November ruling, 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.
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.
Opponents of the Union Pier proposal say they would prefer a new terminal is built farther from the city's historic areas, such as at Veterans Terminal in North Charleston. They also advocate the use of shore power — port-side electric plug-ins for ships while they are docked to reduce emissions.
"At the end of the day, we need to get to a solution that balances a cruise operations and the people, resources and businesses around it," Holman said. "Stripping the rights of people across South Carolina to question unlawful pollution permits is not the way to get there.'
Charleston is becoming a more popular destination for cruise ships, with the number of passengers growing to 230,033 in 2017 — a 6.4 percent increase over the previous year. Cruise ships account for about 5 percent — or $11.7 million — of the authority's $324 million in annual operating revenues.
Last year, Carnival announced that it will bring its Sunshine cruise ship to Charleston on a year-round basis starting in May, replacing the smaller and older Ecstasy that has called Charleston home since 2016. Carnival is the only operator with cruises originating from Charleston, although other cruise lines have port calls here.
Carnival has said the current terminal isn't optimal but the cruise line is working with the authority to improve traffic patterns and passenger access while the debate over a new facility plays out.
The authority 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.