North Charleston loses Round 1 in rail dispute

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel said today he will dismiss a federal complaint the city brought against the S.C. Department of Commerce and the State Ports Authority.

North Charleston has lost the first skirmish in what could be a long and grueling legal war over the state’s plans to put an intermodal rail yard on the former Charleston Naval Base.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel said Friday he will dismiss a federal complaint the city brought against the S.C. Department of Commerce and the State Ports Authority. He said the rail yard plans remain in an early stage and the harm to the city isn’t clear — other than some potential buyers being discouraged from locating on the base.

“I don’t have jurisdiction. It’s as simple as that,” Gergel told the more than one dozen lawyers representing the various governments and public agencies involved. “This controversy is not ripe for federal court.”

Gergel indicated the city could return to federal court and resurrect its claims under the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act once it has a clearer picture of the harm it faces from the rail yard proposal.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, who attended the hearing along with City Councilmen Roger Brinson and Ed Astle, did not seem bothered by Gergel’s decision.

“We weren’t told we can’t hear it in federal court. We were told it was too early,” Summey said.

Gergel noted the city still has several state lawsuits pending, and it also could pursue its concerns through the political process as well as the permitting process.

The state lawsuits question the way in which the S.C. Department of Commerce condemned the property for a rail yard and whether the rail plan violates a 2002 memorandum of understanding between the city and State Ports Authority.

State Ports Authority chief executive officer Jim Newsome also attended the hearing and declined comment later, but Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt, who also attended, said the state is having “cordial,” ongoing discussions with the city to try to resolve the dispute.”

Asked when there might be a breakthrough, Hitt said, “I think any time you put a time on it, you’re not being realistic. It will take us some time to work through it.”

North Charleston fears the state’s plan to build a rail yard just west of Hobson Avenue, across from the Clemson Restoration Institute, would harm the city through increased truck traffic, long rail delays at intersections and eroding the quality of life in its southern neighborhoods. It has favored a privately owned site farther to the south.

State officials have said the privately owned site isn’t feasible because both CSX and Norfolk Southern would not have equal access there.

Gergel said he had read more than 1,000 pages of legal briefs and thought the city’s case wasn’t ripe, but he wanted to hold a hearing and give the city’s attorneys a chance to change his mind.

He said it’s not the federal court’s job to step in and be the daddy to try to settle such disputes early on. “It’s my job not to answer questions that I don’t need to answer,” he said.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.