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Editorial: Court is right to give Charlestonians a voice in cruise terminal suit

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The S.C. Supreme court finally dropped anchor on decade-old litigation involving a new cruise ship terminal at Union Pier, rightly giving historic preservation, neighborhood and environmental groups legal "standing" in challenging a state-issued permit for the terminal. Above, the Carnival Sunshine docked in Charleston. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

Common sense has prevailed in a long-running dispute over whether Charlestonians have legal “standing” when it comes to the fight over a permit to build a new cruise ship terminal downtown.

Of course, they should, and now they do, thanks to the S.C. Supreme Court’s ruling Wednesday.

After all, city residents breathe the diesel fumes and put up with the traffic associated with the comings and goings of as many as 3,000 passengers each time a ship visits, both of which the plaintiffs argue hurt their property values and quality of life.

The effects the cruise terminal would have on them are as plain to see as the 893-foot Carnival Sunshine, standing nearly 200 feet tall and dominating the view of the Cooper River.

But what seems obvious in everyday conversation doesn’t always meet the legal standards courts enforce. So it was a relief to see the state Supreme Court side with historic preservation, neighborhood and environmental groups in a decision that sends the terminal permit back to an administrative law judge.

And beyond the issue of cruise ships, the ruling sets an important precedent to clarify the issue of legal standing when it comes to residents challenging governmental actions, a concept scholars agree is one of the most muddied points of law.

“This case has far greater ramifications,” said Winslow Hastie of the Historic Charleston Foundation, one of the plaintiffs. “Residents should have a fundamental right to challenge governmental decisions on issues that affect their communities, particularly if those issues have adverse impacts on their quality of life.”

The 4-1 ruling by the S.C. Supreme Court, which had been mulling the case since June, means the administrative law court will have to expand the discovery process in the plaintiffs’ legal challenge and consider cruise ship impacts on downtown residents in determining whether to allow the new terminal on Union Pier just upriver from the existing one.

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The high court also nixed a $9,300 fine against the plaintiffs for filing what the lower court called a “frivolous” request for a rehearing.

The decision comes at a pivotal time because the State Ports Authority is working toward a new long-term contract with Carnival Cruise Line. Under a nonbinding deal with the city, the SPA limits cruise port calls to 104 per year.

Without the sustained opposition from plaintiffs and their lawyers, Charlestonians would have no voice in deciding what could or could not be built along the city’s historic waterfront. So credit is due to the Southern Environmental Law Center and its partners, including the Coastal Conservation League, the Preservation Society of Charleston and the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association.

Attorney Blan Holman of the SELC characterized the decision as one that helps rebalance growth in Charleston with the residents’ health and the city’s historical charm.

Indeed, the ruling is as important in the abstract as it is in the actual — and actionable — case at hand. It also jibes with a federal court ruling related to the cruise terminal project.

When the issue comes back before an administrative law court, at least we know the fight will be fair. And that’s a win for now.

And in the larger picture, the ruling also should provide further impetus for the city of Charleston and the SPA to renew efforts to find a way out of their decadelong impasse not only over the future cruise terminal but over cruise ship visitors’ impacts on the city.

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