Citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, today filed suit against Panama-based Carnival Cruise Lines to enforce local laws that protect the city’s healthy environment and treasured historic assets. Filed in South Carolina state court, the legal action contends that large cruise ship operations in the heart of the city’s historic district run afoul of local zoning ordinances, snarl traffic by closing downtown streets, and violate state environmental permitting laws.
“These laws were put in place to balance economic development, historic conservation and a healthy environment,” said Blan Holman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which filed the suit on behalf of the citizens groups. “People simply want to see Carnival play by the rules just like everyone else so that an uncontrolled cruise industry doesn’t swamp Charleston’s health and heritage. Charleston relies on a careful balance between tourism and preservation that cruise ship interests shouldn’t overwhelm.”
“Right now we have too much gridlock and pollution because the cruise industry based a giant ship right next to our small historic residential neighborhoods,” said Carrie Agnew, a member of the Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association. “When we asked for enforceable limits, we were told that cruise operations were beyond local law, even though Charleston has regulated port terminals in the past. In order to stand up for Charleston, the only option we had left was court.”
Renowned for its antebellum architecture and historic downtown neighborhoods, Charleston has seen explosive cruise ship traffic in recent years as the city has become a “home-port” for the Carnival Fantasy. The number of cruise ship visits has grown from 33 dockings in 2009, to 67 in 2010, to 90 scheduled for this year. Two-thirds of the 2011 visits are home-port calls by the Carnival Fantasy and involve the unloading and unloading of thousands of passengers and transfers of supplies and garbage. Two public streets in the downtown historic district are closed on embark/debark days because of the influx of cars and trucks.
Prior to 2008, no cruise ships were based in Charleston. Carnival began basing the Fantasy out of Charleston in 2010, after Celebrity cruise lines left town in the wake of a norovirus outbreak. The Fantasy has 1026 staterooms for hire – twice as many rooms as the largest hotel in Charleston – and towers over ten stories tall for almost a fifth of a mile along the historic waterfront.
“Cramming a giant cruise operation into a small historic area with zero enforceable limits is not the way to protect citizens and the economy,” said Randy Pelzer, a member of the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, another plaintiff in the lawsuit.
In addition to asserting that cruise operations violate local ordinances governing industries and structures in the historic district, the lawsuit contends Carnival is discharging from the Fantasy into South Carolina waters without permits required by state pollution control laws.
“Everyone knows we need careful permitting review on ships with thousands of people on them so we can protect our waters and beaches,” said Dana Beach, executive director of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, another plaintiff in the lawsuit. Although cruise lines say they follow voluntary guidelines, federal law allows for kitchen and bathing wastewater to be discharged within the Charleston jetties. “If they are doing what they say they are doing, they should have no problem making their promises enforceable through permits,” said Beach.
"The Preservation Society has always stood with our neighbors in support of the careful management of land use, development and tourism through the even-handed enforcement of Charleston's precedent-setting local ordinances,” said Evan Thompson, executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston. “Maintaining the balance between residential quality of life and the quality of experience for our visitors requires that we turn to the courts to manage the unprecedented scale of this new form of global tourism in our small but thriving historic city."
The groups say having enforceable standards in place is especially important given that a new cruise terminal is being contemplating in Charleston. “The cruise industry is growing quickly here and around the globe,” said Holman. “The best time to make sure reasonable limits are in place and prevent problems experienced by other communities is at the start.”
The Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association, Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, Preservation Society of Charleston, and S.C. Coastal Conservation League are represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center in the complaint filed against Carnival Cruise Lines in state court.