CHARLESTON — A judge agreed Thursday to hear arguments on whether to dismiss a lawsuit that challenges Charleston’s expanded cruise industry and seeks to block construction of a new cruise terminal.
Circuit Judge Clifton Newton, who was appointed by the state Supreme Court, had a two-hour meeting with attorneys that came a year and a day after residents, environmentalists and preservationists sued Carnival Cruise Lines in a case that has attracted national attention.
The suit alleges, among other things, that the cruise liners are a public nuisance, violate city height ordinances and amount to illegal hotel operations. It asks the courts to block cruise operations and declare it illegal for the State Ports Authority to create a new $35 million cruise terminal at Union Pier.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation last year put Charleston on “watch status,” saying it could make the organization’s list of endangered places because of threats from the growing industry.
In the past, Charleston had only seasonal cruises. But Carnival permanently based its 2,056-passenger liner Fantasy in Charleston in 2010.
Charleston and the Ports Authority have joined Carnival in asking the lawsuit be dismissed, contending, among other things, that the city waterfront has been a seaport far longer than the city has had zoning laws.
The Supreme Court agreed last January to hear the case without it first winding through the lower courts and appointed Newton to act as a special referee and make recommendations.
Much of Thursday’s discussion was about what authority Newton has in the case.
Marvin Infinger, representing the Ports Authority, said court rules only allow him to make recommendations on outstanding motions, such as the motion to dismiss.
But attorneys for the plaintiffs want discovery, or the collecting of evidence, to begin. Attorneys said they needed to depose several key witnesses, including Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. and Ports Authority CEO Jim Newsome.
John Massalon, representing the Preservation Society of Charleston, said if the case concerned only legal issues already in documents, “one has to wonder why the Supreme Court didn’t decide them.”
He filed a separate motion this week with the high court asking that discovery be allowed.
Newton said he expected the justices to provide some guidance before he holds a July 12 hearing on the motion to dismiss.
“In order to make recommendations, I will have to have a factual basis,” he said.
Follow Bruce Smith at http:twitter.com/brucesmithap