As a new, larger cruise ship begins docking in Charleston next week, the city's ongoing relationship with the cruise industry remains on choppy waters.
While several state agencies and nonprofits are tied up in legal wrangling over permits and other issues, vendors on Market Street say more cruise ships porting near their stations are only impacting traffic, not necessarily contributing to more cash in their pockets.
The State Port Authority built its current cruise ship terminal in the 1970s, and most cruise ships have stopped there only briefly. In 2010, when Carnival began basing a cruise ship in Charleston, neighbors took note as hundreds of passengers and their luggage made their way to and from the new ship, triggering debate over the pros and cons of cruise ships in the city.
In 2011, the city was placed on "watch status" with the National Trust for Historic Preservation because of concerns over the ships' impact.
In 2012, the SPA sought state and federal permits to build a new $35 million, 100,000-square foot cruise ship terminal on the same site but closer to Laurens Street. The SPA relies on a cruise management plan and a voluntary agreement that says no more than 104 ships will dock a year, only one at a time, and must cap at 3,500 passengers. Neighbors, and lawyers representing them, say that voluntary agreement isn't enforceable.
As one of the named plaintiffs in the years-long lawsuit over permitting rights, the Preservation Society of Charleston's executive director, Kristopher King, said recently he sees no breakthrough in sight: “It’s a shame we can’t sit down and come up with some workable outcomes.”
The SPA sought a federal permit through the Army Corps of Engineers, which approved the proposed terminal as a maintenance project. No notice or public hearing to abutting or nearby property owners was required.
Nearby property owners challenged that permit, and a federal court ordered the process to start over. The Corps of Engineers must consult with a number of agencies, including the National Park Service, before issuing another permit. SPA spokeswoman Erin Dhand said the Corps of Engineers is expected to make a decision on the permit by year's end.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control issued a state permit for the project. Neighbors attempted to challenge that permit and brought the case before the state's administrative law court. Before hearing the case, a judge threw it out saying the property owners did not have a right to bring a legal challenge. An appeals court judge upheld that decision.
On June 11, the S.C. Supreme Court will hear arguments on the matter. If neighbors prevail, then the case will return to the administrative law court for trial.
Attorney Blan Holman with the Southern Environmental Law Center said the issue is about more than cruise ships — it's about whether residents can challenge a state agency's permits.
"If pollution is going to affect them, we think they should be able to contest the validity of the permit," Holman said.
In 2016, newly installed Mayor John Tecklenburg told the Army Corps of Engineers he supported the court-ordered review of the proposed terminal. To support both the cruise ship industry and residents' quality of life, Tecklenburg said the city wanted continued dialogue on the topic of shore power — whether ships burn fuel or plug into the electric grid while docked.
He said the city also wanted a dialogue about the voluntary agreement about the number of cruise ships, passengers and frequency of docking. He said such limits "would be reasonable and prudent additions to that existing regulatory framework."
A cruise ship 'helps and it doesn't'
Market Street vendors say an influx of cruise passengers doesn't help all of them pad their wallets, but they do make traffic more difficult in the morning.
“The ship helps and it doesn’t,” Elijah Cuman said, who has been basket weaving on the same spot at the corner of Slate and North Market streets for 30 years, continuing a family business. “It’s good because more people are spending money, it’s bad for the traffic.”
Jonzetta Taylor stocks and tends her family’s food stand with an eye toward tourists. What her grandfather started in 1910 as a vegetable and fruit stand, she has transitioned into one featuring dry food products.
“I do like when the cruise ships are here, the traffic is congested, but it’s good for business,” Taylor said. “I’d rather deal with more traffic for more business.”
Taylor said she prefers cruise ships that dock for the day so people on the ships have more time to shop around.
For Mike Noble, though, a merchant selling photo mat signs, he said the cruise ships “doesn’t do anything for our business.” In the 39 years he’s had a stand on Market Street, Noble said he thinks he’s sold to cruise ship tourists once or twice.
Kathryn Koegel, a jewelry vendor, said she bases her scheduling on what cruise ships are prepared to dock in Charleston. The stand has been on Market Street since 1977, with Koegel there selling since 2003, before cruise ships started docking there.
“I think it’s helpful,” Koegel said. “It doesn’t make or break a day. ... The cruise ship season is a busy season anyway.”