CHARLESTON — A South Carolina judge on Friday began pondering a lawsuit claiming Carnival cruises and the thousands of passengers they draw to historic Charleston are a public nuisance.
Circuit Judge Clifton Newman heard more than five hours of arguments over two days in the case that has attracted national attention and was brought by preservation groups, environmentalists and residents of the city’s historic district.
The arguments ranged from whether the Carnival Fantasy, when docked at the state passenger terminal, is a structure governed by city zoning ordinances to whether the ship needs a separate state pollution permit and whether the plaintiffs even have the right to sue.
Carnival, along with the South Carolina State Ports Authority and the city of Charleston, want the judge to dismiss the case.
He was appointed as a special referee by the South Carolina Supreme Court. Newman gave no indication Friday when he might rule.
“I want to take a sufficient amount of time to perform the task assigned to me by the Supreme Court,” he said.
The Preservation Society of Charleston, the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League and neighborhood groups want to block cruise operations and have the court declare it illegal for the Ports Authority to create a new $35 million cruise terminal.
Marvin Infinger, representing the authority, said the plaintiffs can’t bring the case because any alleged impacts from the cruises such as congestion and pollution affect the entire city.
“Unless you can show a unique injury, you don’t have standing,” he said, adding that if an entire community is affected it’s up to public officials to go to court. “If the rule is not enacted in that that way there is no way to prevent 10,000 private nuisance suits.”
The city government supports the cruises, he added.
Attorney John Massalon, representing the Preservation Society of Charleston, argued the groups can sue.
“There are some issues that are so important that somebody has to come here and air it out,” he said.
The arguments also concerned whether the Fantasy, when docked in Charleston, is a structure governed by zoning ordinances dealing with the height of buildings and making sure vistas of the water are kept clear.
Blan Holman, another attorney for the plaintiffs, argued the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, permanently moored at the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant across Charleston Harbor, is considered a structure.
“The Carnival Fantasy for two months out of the year is attached to the Union Pier wharf,” he said, adding the issue turns on how long it needs to be attached to be considered a structure. “We say it is enough – two months of attachment a year.”
Julius Hines, representing the cruise line, countered that under maritime law, the Fantasy is a vessel until it is permanently moored and no longer can be used to navigate.
Last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation put Charleston on “watch status,” saying it could make the organization’s list of endangered places because of threats from the growing industry.
The Carnival permanently based the 2,056-passenger Fantasy in Charleston two years ago, giving the city a year-round cruise industry.