CHARLESTON, S.C. – It's been almost four years since the South Carolina Ports Authority announced plans to build a new $35 million passenger cruise terminal by renovating an old warehouse on the Charleston waterfront.
And it's going on three years that the issue of building the terminal has been before the courts. With challenges from environmental, neighborhood and preservation groups ongoing in federal, state and administrative law courts, the debate over the city's year-round cruise industry won't be ending any time soon.
Opponents of the city's expanded cruise industry say they are not opposed to cruises, but want stronger regulations governing the industry. They have challenged both state and federal permits to allow the Ports Authority to install new pilings beneath the warehouse to create the new terminal.
They have also gone to the state Supreme Court arguing that the cruises are a public nuisance causing noise, pollution and traffic congestion in the city's Historic District.
Supporters say cruises will only be a niche market in Charleston — not the major industry witnessed in such places as Venice, Italy, and Key West, Fla. They say the industry is being appropriately handled.
The new year brings court activity on a couple of fronts.
On Jan. 7, a mediator for the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond plans to meet with attorneys representing both sides in an appeal in the dispute over a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit for the pilings.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel ruled in September that the Corps did not adequately review the project's effects on the city's historic district, telling attorneys for the Corps "You gave this permit a bum's rush."
The Ports Authority and Corps are appealing Gergel's order.
Then on Jan. 27, Chief Administrative Law Judge Ralph K. Anderson III takes up the matter of a challenge to a state permit for those pilings.
The Department of Health and Environmental Control in Dec. 2012 approved the permit. Officials noted that the warehouse area has been an industrial and commercial area for centuries and putting in the five pilings for the terminal alone does not allow bigger ships or more ships.
The neighborhood, conservation and preservation groups appealed. And it will likely be many months until the issue is resolved because any decision by an administrative law judge can then be appealed to state circuit court.
There's been no ruling on the third outstanding legal action - the case before the state Supreme Court that alleges the cruises are a public nuisance. The justices heard arguments in mid-November and have not yet handed down a decision.
Carnival Cruise Lines based its 2,056-passenger liner Fantasy in Charleston more than three years ago, giving the city a year-round industry. Before that, ships made port calls, but none were based in Charleston.