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The following article was first published in The Nerve, a blog of the SC Policy Council. It ran for 3 days.

What’s all the fuss about Cruise ships in Charleston?

Warwick Jones

It’s now more than 2 years since Carnival Cruise Lines began running cruises out of Charleston. Carnival was welcomed by the City, as was at plan by the State Port Authority (SPA) to build a new, one berth cruise terminal and to integrate part of the Union Pier area back into the city.

The city and the SPA agreed that the number of cruise ship visits would be limited to 104 a year and that ships have a design capacity of no more than 3500 passengers. Everybody should have been happy – the cruise ship passenger numbers were limited and represented only a few percent of total visitors in a year, and passengers presented no strain or threat on the city’s infrastructure or to its historic ambience. The port and business generally would benefit. But everybody wasn’t satisfied!

The Coastal Conservation League (CCL) raised a red flag not long after Carnival began operating; there were a host of accusations and allegations relating to pollution, but no proof. The league also claimed that the agreement between the SPA and the city was not legally binding and there was a threat that cruise ship visits would swell. The agreement between the city and the SPA needed to be codified it said. There was more. Two Peninsula neighborhood associations and the Preservation Society joined the Coastal Conservation League’s cause and ultimately began legal action through the Southern Environmental Law Center against Carnival. The SPA and the city of Charleston joined Carnival: the Historic Charleston Foundation and the National Trust for Historic Preservation sided with the Conservation League, the Neighborhood Associations and the Preservation Society. The Post and Courier, the city’s only daily newspaper, also resolutely supported CCL in its editorials and generously gave space to its executive director and staff to air their views.

With all those heavy hitters arrayed against it, you would think that Carnival was plundering the City and turning the harbor into a cesspool. It wasn’t, it isn’t, and it is not likely to.

And after the publication of the Miley Report, it’s still a wonder what the fuss is about. The report was commissioned by the Historic Charleston Foundation and supposedly independent. Its goal was to provide an assessment of the impact of the cruise industry on Charleston, and was largely inconclusive. But here is what it said about cruise ships and visits after noting the decline in numbers this year and likely in subsequent years:

“The decline could be an indication that 2011 was a peak and the proposed limit of 104 cruise visits a year may never be an issue”.

If true, how can the fears of CCL and its supporters be realized? Originally, the league wanted the agreement between the State Port Authority and the city codified to prevent cruise numbers from rising. The city said, and rightly, that it does not have the power to control cruise ships. That power rests with the state and federal Governments. And besides, the SPA and not the city, owns the land on which the cruise terminal sits. The state Supreme Court hopefully will determine the issue of jurisdiction shortly, but it still seems pointless to some. If the Supreme Court decides in favor of the Coastal Conservation League and its supporters, how does codification in a zoning code ensure that cruise ships numbers are limited? A future City Council can vote to change the numbers whenever it wishes.

The Conservation League has made much of pollution, of cruise ships in the harbor and offshore, and land based traffic transporting passengers to and from vessels. There is no evidence that Carnival has caused any pollution in the harbor. If Carnival were polluting, it would be quickly punished. There is also no evidence that Carnival has broken any law, state, federal, or international, in regard to dumping offshore. Opponents also point to traffic tie-ups along East Bay Street and the “spewing and belching” smoke from the ship’s funnels. Keener observers would have difficulty in discerning any changes in traffic density when a ship is in port. The East Bay Street is a major conduit into the City and is congested most of the day. And with sufficient engines running to simply provide electricity through the ship, smoke issuing from a funnel is a wisp for most of the time a ship is in port.

The City expects the lawsuit against Carnival to fail and hopes it will be tossed out. It would appear that many of the claims are frivolous – for example, ships block view corridors, create noises that infringe the City’s noise ordinance, create pollution by applying a copper compound on ship hulls. For the record, nearly all ship hulls are painted with a copper compound.

So the question is what is driving CCL and its supporters. Some cynics say that by creating such a controversy, the Conservation League’s fund raising ability is enhanced. But we also know that its aggression has turned off some supporters. The accusations that its Executive Director, Dana Beach, has made in relation to the honesty of the State Ports Authority and staff have been impolite to say the least. The league certainly has succeeded in elevating the dispute, which is a sad tribute to the respect held for it by many citizens. But is it the members of CCL shaping policy or is it the executive director?

If there is a common thread between the Coastal Conservation League, the preservation groups and the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, it runs through their directors. Some of the directors are reputed to be wealthy and significant contributors to the preservation groups and Conservation League. Unfortunately, this is difficult to prove without a list of donor names.

We would also note that the board of the Historic Charleston Foundation chooses its members. You can be a donor, and if the contribution is large enough, you probably will get an invitation. But only through invitation can you become a board member. The Preservation Society on the other hand is democratic, with board members elected by members of the society.

If Riley were concerned by the apparent weight of opposition to City policy, he was mightily relieved by the results of the mayoral election in November last. He swept the City and was returned to office on the first round. What was particularly encouraging for him was the vote in the Peninsula neighborhoods from which comes the opposition to cruise ships. The “Below Broad” precincts averaged a 66% vote for Riley. The residents overall clearly had a different view than the neighborhood associations.

The electorate may have spoken loud and clear in its support for Mayor Riley. But some folk still harbor hostility towards Riley. In the more than 30 years that he has been Mayor, there have been many changes in the City, and some say not for the better. Accepting cruise ships and City policy may not be possible for many of these critics, regardless of the facts.

The issue of cruise ships remains alive in the pages of the Post and Courier, and in a few communities on the Peninsula. But the majority of the City’s citizens are not concerned. Meanwhile, and despite regular cruise ship visits, the City continues to earn accolades as a tourist destination and for livability. Conde Nast Traveler readers named it the No. 1 City in the US last year, and Travel + Leisure World named it the No. 2 City in the US and Canada.

Hopefully, the SC Supreme Court will decide shortly on the law suit so it and the whole cruise ship issue can be put to bed. But some folk probably will lie awake, scheming and plotting.

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