CHARLESTON, S.C. -- The South Carolina Supreme Court has agreed to hear complaints brought by local residents, preservationists and an environmental group over Charleston's expanded cruise industry.
A lawsuit filed last year against Carnival Cruise Lines alleges, among other things, that the company's vessels are a public nuisance in this historic city, that they amount to illegal hotel operations and that the liner's signature red, white and blue smokestacks violate city sign ordinances.
The court has agreed to hear the case without it first going to a lower one. No date for arguments has been set.
The plaintiffs include Charleston residents, the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League and the Preservation Society of Charleston.
After the suit was filed, the city and the State Ports Authority intervened on the side of Carnival. They asked the Supreme Court to take immediate jurisdiction saying the lawsuit threatens the maritime commerce making it a matter of statewide public interest.
The plaintiffs said a lower court should hear the matter first.
They said the complaint applies only to Carnival and that other maritime operations don't infringe on the quality of life in quiet historic neighborhoods. They also said it's a zoning matter similar to those heard routinely by trial courts statewide.
The lawsuit asks a judge to block cruise operations that "constitute a nuisance" and declare illegal the use of the Union Pier area for a terminal. That's where the Ports Authority is planning a new $35 million cruise terminal.
"Ultimately the case was going to make it to the Supreme Court one way or the other because of the significant issues involved," said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center representing the plaintiffs.
"We thought it appropriate because it was a community and neighborhood-focused issue that it first be heard closer to the community and neighborhood involved. But we can understand, given the high-profile nature of the issue the Supreme Court decided otherwise," he said. "The basic decision to be made by the court ... is applying the language of the law – and here that is a series of zoning ordinances – to the facts as alleged."
The city and the Ports Authority said the case should be resolved quickly and "an expedited resolution has huge significance for all of the State's ocean trade, not just for cruise ships."
While there have been seasonal cruises from Charleston for years, things changed in 2010 when Carnival permanently based its 2,056-passenger liner Fantasy here, creating a year-round industry.
Charleston, which passed the nation's first historic preservation ordinance more than 80 years ago, was warned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation last year that the growing industry threatens its historic character.
Tourism is a $14 billion industry in South Carolina and 2010 study for the Ports Authority found cruises account for about $37 million of that.
Associated Press writer Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this story.