Bigger ship arrives as case over neighbors’ rights heads to state’s high court

The larger Carnival Sunshine, replacing the Carnival Ecstasy, brought 1,000 more passengers to Charleston's Union Pier and surrounding streets, when it docked at its home base for the first time on May 18. (© Nicholas McFarland)

The South Carolina State Ports Authority home-based its largest cruise ship yet at the Union Pier terminal near Charleston’s Historic Downtown just a couple of weeks before the state’s Supreme Court will decide whether neighbors should have a say in the port’s proposal to build a bigger cruise facility.

The Ports Authority wants to build a new $43 million cruise terminal to host bigger ships, more often. Neighbors living near the planned construction have asked for some limits on the size of ships visiting and the number of visits per year and other measures to reduce pollution and gridlock in the area.

However, state courts have so far maintained neighbors do not have the right to petition for changes to the permits needed to build the bigger facility.

This case is really about the fundamental right of citizens to have their voices heard when a proposed government project will increase pollution and traffic, and impact neighbors’ health and quality of life.”

—Managing Attorney Blan Holman

Those requested changes, says SELC’s Blan Holman, would strike a better balance that accommodates both the popular cruise industry and the needs and health of those who live and work near the terminal.

“This case is really about the fundamental right of citizens to have their voices heard when a proposed government project will increase pollution and traffic, and impact neighbors’ health and quality of life,” he said. “There is no doubt these neighbors will be directly affected by a new and larger cruise terminal. They should have their day in court.”

In an editorial this week headlined, “Give us ‘standing’ on cruise ships,” the Charleston Post and Courier struck a similar tone.

“[I]t’s clear that Charleston is an attractive port of call for the expanding cruise industry, and the Supreme Court decision will be vital to the people of Charleston in balancing their interests against those of the cruise industry, as well as the State Ports Authority and other entities, far into the future,” the newspaper wrote.

On June 11, the question of whether neighbors have that right – or the “standing” – to object to government-issued pollution permits will head to the South Carolina Supreme Court.

In the meantime, neighbors saw first-hand what an increase in cruise traffic looks like.

The larger Carnival Sunshine, replacing the Carnival Ecstasy, brought 1,000 more passengers to the pier and surrounding streets. The ship docked for the first time in Charleston on May 18 and will be based at Union Pier.

Tommie Robertson, a former school teacher who lives near the cruise terminal, said the bigger ship has indeed brought bigger headaches.

“It’s a total traffic nightmare now,” she said. “The parking lot at the port is full as far as the eye can see, and all the surrounding streets – Calhoun, Laurens, Washington – are jammed with more passengers trying to get in.”

Robertson said when a cruise ship is in port, she has to take a look at nearby flags to see which way the wind is blowing. If she sees diesel fumes being pushed towards her home, she stays inside to avoid soot pollution that makes her throat hurt.

She and others are asking the Ports Authority to put some teeth into its voluntary agreement to limit the cruise traffic, but the agency has refused.

The Ports Authority’s voluntary agreement says there will be no more than 104 ship visits a year, and no ship will be able to carry more than 3.500 passengers. However, the SPA has refused to make those limits enforceable.

State documents make it clear that the Ports Authority isn’t committed to the voluntary limits.

“Perfect, just remove the graf on what the cruise management plan says,” a Ports Authority official wrote to the author of a press release who had included a passage about the voluntary limits.

In another state document, the Ports Authority wrote it “would re-evaluate its adherence to the VCMP (Voluntary Cruise Management Plan) and its agreement to limit the number and frequency of cruise ship calls” if it does not get the OK to build a new facility.

Charleston City Councilman Mike Seekings, in an interview with ABC News 4, said he is concerned that with a larger ship bringing aboard 1,000 more passengers, the city has limited avenues to control what the state-owned port allows.

“Whenever you add another burden of a thousand cars four times a week, which is exactly what we think this is doing, or maybe more, it is just increasing our congestion,” he said. “Most importantly, it is increasing the burden on the people who live here in terms of livability … and in terms of cost of running the city.”

Councilman Seekings also told reporter Kate Mosso a better balance is needed.

“Right now it is just economically inequitable,” he said. “They are getting all of the benefit, and we here in the city of Charleston are accepting all of the burden.”

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