CHARLESTON — Residents and environmental groups sued Carnival Cruise Lines on Monday, alleging the company's vessels docking in this historic city are a public nuisance, amount to illegal hotel operations and that their signature red, white and blue smokestacks violate city sign ordinances.
"We're here today because the cruise industry has set up shop in our neighborhood," said Carrie Agnew, who lives in the Ansonborough neighborhood five blocks from where the Carnival Fantasy will dock 70 times this year.
She said neighbors have been trying for 18 months to get some reasonable controls on the growing cruise industry but "in return, all we have gotten is more soot, more traffic jams, more closed streets and more industrial-sized cruise operations."
The suit was filed in state court by two local neighborhood associations, the Coastal Conservation League and the Preservation Society of Charleston.
It wants 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 S.C. State Ports Authority is planning to build a new $25 million terminal to accommodate the city's growing cruise industry.
Carnival spokesman Tim Gallagher referred reporters seeking comment to the State Ports Authority.
"The special interests behind this lawsuit are clearly attempting to harass port customers, said Bill Stern, the authority chairman who likened the plaintiffs to a "narrow-minded band of radicals."
He said their goal was to cripple the port system to meet an anti-growth agenda.
"First it's cruise chips, then cargo ships. Next it will be trucks and rails," he warned.
Blan Holman, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the plaintiffs don't oppose the cruise industry. But he said there needs to be reasonable controls as there are on other tourism businesses in the city.
There have been seasonal cruises from Charleston in years past, but things changed a year ago when Carnival permanently based its 2,056-passenger liner Fantasy in Charleston creating a year-round industry.
Tourism means $18.4 billion to South Carolina and a study for the Ports Authority last year found cruises account for about $37 million of that.
The lawsuit claims that the cruise ships amount to putting accommodations in an area of the city not zoned for it. It says the 60-foot-tall cruise ships and their bright smokestacks violate city height ordinances and sign ordinances.
It also alleges the ships bring noise, pollution and large crowds, in violation of city ordinances, and that the Carnival does not have the required state permits to dump waste water into Charleston Harbor.
But Gov. Nikki Haley said Carnival brings business and visitors to Charleston.
"I want to thank Carnival Cruise Lines for its working relationship with the ports and the state of South Carolina - we're lucky to have them," she said.
Agnew said Carnival shouldn't get preferential treatment.
"No one likes to file a lawsuit, but we were given no other choice," said Agnew, a member of the Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association. "Charleston residents and businesses all live and thrive under rules and standards. Carnival must do the same."