The Battle of Charleston: Carnival, Cruise Industry Combat Foes in South Carolina

June 17, 2011
(1:10 p.m. EDT) -- Homeport is, evidently, not where the heart is.

At least that appears to be the case in Charleston, where preservation and environmental groups sued Carnival Cruise Lines this week, alleging that Carnival Fantasy -- which is based in the city -- regularly breaks local zoning ordinances, causes a public disturbance and violates environmental laws. In addition, the Associated Press reported on Wednesday that the National Trust for Historic Preservation has warned the city that the growing cruise industry threatens its historic character. The civil suit -- brought by the Coastal Conservation League, the Charleston Preservation Society and the city's Ansonborough and Charlestowne neighborhoods -- is asking the court to find that Carnival Fantasy is illegally docking at Charleston's Union Pier Terminal. Last year, Fantasy became the first cruise ship to permanently homeport in Charleston, from which it departs on Caribbean, Bahamas and Bermuda cruises.

The Post and Courier, a Charleston publication, described the lawsuit as the most recent development in an 18-month saga among the city, the state ports, Carnival and the city's active residential and preservation groups. Cruise ships have sailed seasonally from Charleston in the past, but the 2,056-passenger Fantasy became a permanent resident in May 2010 and is sailing some 70 five-, six- and seven-night cruises in 2011. The embarkation port serves hundreds of thousands of drive-to cruisers from the Carolinas and Georgia; port officials told Reuters that the cruise industry brings $37 million annually into a three-county coastal region and supports more than 400 jobs.

The suit claims Carnival Fantasy should be subject to the same zoning ordinances as other area accommodations. For instance, the ship exceeds the height limit of 60 feet, and the signature "whale tale" smokestack, which a release from the plaintiffs described as towering above the city's historic skyline, violates local sign ordinances. The lawsuit further contends that Fantasy is discharging waste into South Carolina waters without permits required by state pollution control laws.

Blan Holman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), insisted that the litigants are not anti-cruise. "People simply want to see Carnival play by the rules just like everyone else so that an uncontrolled cruise industry doesn't swamp Charleston's health and heritage," he said in a press release.

"Right now we have too much gridlock and pollution because the cruise industry based a giant ship right next to our small historic residential neighborhoods," said Carrie Agnew, a member of the Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association, in the SELC's release.

When asked for comment, Carnival referred Cruise Critic to the South Carolina Port Authority (SPA), which owns and operates the city's port. In a statement, the SPA called the suit frivolous and something "intended to harass Carnival in hopes the line will leave Charleston rather than endure further public attacks by this element of Charleston's population." The statement noted that Carnival not only complies with all applicable laws and regulations but, in many cases, exceeds those requirements.

"We also believe that the suit will inevitably fail on its complete lack of merit," the SPA concluded.

SPA chairman Bill Stern also weighed in: "They don't seem to care that their agenda would irreparably damage economic development and kill jobs all across South Carolina. It's time for people of goodwill to stand against this narrow-minded band of radicals and their frivolous, irresponsible lawsuits."

--by Dan Askin, News Editor