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Another ‘Lost Cause’ In Charleston, S.C.

For some, a ride on Carnival Cruise Lines’ 2,056-passenger Fantasy would indeed be a fantasy come true. Others, however, just fantasize about kicking the ship out of their town.

The Fantasy is the first cruise ship to be based in Charleston, S.C., and its arrival there raised a storm of questions about the limits of municipal authority and the value of historical preservation versus economic growth.

In June, the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Coastal Conservation League, the Preservation Society of Charleston, and several Charleston neighborhood groups sued Carnival, claiming that the ship’s presence violates Charleston’s strict zoning laws. They maintain that the ship is a “structure,” subject to the same regulations on height, signage and other matters as buildings on land.

The lawsuit also alleges that the ship violates a view corridor protection statute prohibiting construction that blocks views of the harbor. Mayor Joe Riley, who opposes the lawsuit, responded that the boat is part of the view. The statute exists “so you can see ships,” he said.

Other history lovers are unwilling to sign on to the lawsuit, but want the city to pass an ordinance that would prevent cruise visits from becoming more frequent. Currently, the South Carolina Ports Authority limits cruise visits to Charleston to 104 per year and allows only one ship to call in the port at a time. The cap is voluntary, however, and can be increased by the Ports Authority at any time. The Historic Charleston Foundation – a separate group from the Preservation Society of Charleston – is seeking a city ordinance to make the 104-visit cap mandatory.

The Historic Charleston Foundation and other history buffs are fighting a proposed measure, currently before the City Council, that they view as too weak. The ordinance, written by Mayor Riley, would require the Ports Authority to follow a public process to increase the number of cruise visits beyond 104, but would not make an increase impossible.

Adding to the controversy is the fact that Ports Authority plans to build a new passenger terminal at the city’s Union Pier. Both the current terminal and the proposed terminal are outside the bounds of the historic district, but docking at Union Pier brings ships closer to the city center.

Charleston is indeed a beautiful city. Its historical district is both one of the loveliest and one of the most lovingly preserved in the nation. But because Charleston is far from I-95, it is not on anyone’s route to anywhere, so relatively few people get to experience its charms. Increased cruise departures would change that, allowing Caribbean-bound passengers to soak in a dose of history before or after they sail. The Fantasy draws most of its passengers from within driving distance, but some come from farther away and would otherwise never set foot in Charleston.

Charleston residents may not care much about their potential guests’ historical education, but they should care about the boost cruisers bring to local economies. The cruise ship industry contributes around $37 million annually to the Charleston metropolitan area, according to The Wall Street Journal. More ships coming to port would mean more passengers in search of on-shore food and lodging.

Since I spend a lot of time in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., I’m no stranger to the downsides of living among cruise ships. Personally, I still agree with Riley that ships are part of an ocean view, not an obstruction of it, and I enjoy watching them from the balcony of my downtown apartment. Unfortunately, I also spend a lot of my time on that balcony trying to mop up the ever-present layer of black soot left by the ships, as well as by smaller boats on the nearby New River. I suppose some of my neighbors would gladly sacrifice their view of the ships in exchange for a cleaner balcony.

The truth, however, is that the number of ships that call in our town is not up to my neighbors and me, nor should it be. From portside residents’ perspective, the personal nuisance caused by cruise ships is not worth the dispersed economic benefits they bring. From the perspective of a city or state as a whole, however, a few people’s annoyance is a reasonable price to pay for something that benefits everyone. If the price can be brought down, through tighter federal pollution standards for marine diesel fuel (and those tighter standards are on the way), that’s a good thing; if not, a less appealing view or a few sooty balconies is no reason to put the brakes on a valuable and relatively clean industry.

People tend to put their own interests first, which is why issues like maritime traffic generally fall under state or federal purview. Individuals, neighborhood associations and city councils are free to express how they will be affected, but they don’t get the final say.

The lawsuit against Carnival seems destined to fail. The attempts to control the state Ports Authority by city ordinance likely will as well. Cities generally cannot tell state agencies how to do their business.

Charleston’s most famous moment in history came on April 12, 1861, when Confederate artillery opened fire on Fort Sumter. Then, as now, residents were eager to challenge a distant governing power. Eventually Southern secessionists came to see their movement as a “Lost Cause.” Today’s cruise opponents are likely to find their NIMBYism is similarly ill-fated. This time, fortunately, the battle will not involve bloodshed.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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