COLUMBIA — The controversial case over the location of Charleston's new cruise ship terminal could come down to how justices on the state Supreme Court define one word: affected.
Justice George C. James Jr., during a Tuesday hearing over the proposed development of a new cruise ship terminal at Union Pier, asked an attorney defending the state five times for the dictionary definition of “affected,” as the neighbors who complain of excessive traffic, loud music and early-morning car alarms sat behind him.
The courtroom was filled with residents of the historic Ansonborough neighborhood, as well as different Charleston advocacy groups concerned about the impacts of cruise ships.
The court's ruling will decide if residents and local advocacy groups may appeal a state-issued permit to build a new terminal just north of the existing one at the State Ports Authority's Union Pier site.
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. Neighbors sued in federal court on the issuance of a federal permit, but an attempt to challenge a state permit before the state’s administrative law court was thrown out in December 2013.
An appellate court judge upheld the administrative law judge's ruling that residents did not have a valid reason to sue.
Attorneys representing the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, which issued the state permit, and the Ports Authority argued that nearby residents haven't shown tangible evidence they would be impacted by the proposed terminal and therefore don't have a legal right to contest the permit.
When Justice James asked DHEC and Ports Authority attorney Chad Johnston five times for a common or dictionary definition of the word "affected," he said the General Assembly defines an affected person differently under state statute, depending on the context of a permit or development.
Justice Kaye G. Hearn acknowledged the large group from Charleston during the hearing, asking, “Who would be an affected person if these people aren’t?"
Hearn cited specific individuals — a person who kayaks on the harbor, another with an architectural firm in the city, or others who complain of piling soot on their porches and cars. She asked how Johnston would describe someone affected by cruise ship development. He said a homeowner whose windows shattered from loud cruise ship horns would be considered affected because that would be tangible.
Tommie Robertson, who lives in the Anson House Condos on Laurens Street, said the new terminal would be only about 500 feet from her home. She smiled after Tuesday's hearing and echoed the sentiments of the neighborhood's attorney, Blan Holman.
"I love the common sense questions about 'If they're not affected, who is?'" Robertson said. "I thought the justices made some important and valid points. Of course, you never know."
"The justices asked really good questions, and that's all you can ask for," said Holman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Kristopher King, executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston — one of the plaintiffs in the case — said he felt positive after the hearing.
"They put both sides through their paces rather rigidly," King said. "The core points that they challenged DHEC on is again to get to the basic impact of who is considered negatively impacted and who has standing?"