Union Pier Talk Dominates Charleston Meeting

September 17, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveDiscussion and residents’ comments over a resolution relating to the Union Pier Plan took up much of the Sept. 14 Charleston City Council meeting.

Some of the comments by residents were heated but the discussion on council was not. While some City Council members professed concern about some aspects, all voted for the resolution, which had been amended slightly from that contained in the agenda package.

The amendments were proposed by Councilman Gary White Jr., who said he took many calls from constituents — both for and against the proposal.

In an attempt to placate those against the resolution, references to cruise ships were largely deleted and the focus was maintained on the actual Union Pier development.

However, perhaps the most criticized sentence relating to State Ports Authority management of the cruise business was retained. A copy of the amended resolution can be found here. (Go to the last paragraph to see the retained sentence.)

Debate over cruise ships and their impact on the environment has been on going for a year or so since the SPA announced intentions to redevelop its Union Pier property.

Connected with this development was the construction of a new pier north of the existing pier, with the capacity and infrastructure to berth only one cruise ship with a maximum passenger complement of about 3,500.

It seems few people had issue with the plans to develop the Union Pier property, or indeed the construction of a new terminal. But many said they thought that federal and international regulations were not enough to ensure that cruise ships did not pollute the waterways or air.

They also seemed to think that the city needed a memorandum of understanding or an ordinance defining the responsibilities of the cruise ship lines.

The Coastal Conservation League has been a prominent and strident critic of the plan – at least in terms of what it considers an absence of adequate pollution controls and legislation limiting cruise ship visits and the size of ships.

The Preservation Society lined up behind Coastal Conservation League and recently published a position paper that was similar to that of the league’s. Representatives from both organizations were present during the meeting and spoke against the plan. They were joined by a number of residents.

Representatives of the State Ports Authority, the Charleston Chamber of Commerce, King Street Merchants Association and organized labor, along with residents, spoke for the resolution.

They cited the economic benefits of cruise ship visits, the increase in employment opportunities, the creation of open space and the removal of some unattractive buildings.

They repudiated the claim that cruise ships would pollute the environment and that the SPA could increase the number of cruise ship visits from a maximum of two a week, or increase the maximum ship size from a passenger complement of 3,500 to 5,000.

If the State Ports Authority wanted to change anything that it referred to in letters to the city, the SPA would seek public input and bring the matter before City Council.

This promise was good enough for the proponents of the plan, and, seemingly, for council members.

When it came to council discussion, there was enthusiastic support for the amended resolution. The amendments had been added just prior to the meeting and differed from that in the agenda packet for citizens.

Among those who spoke in favor of the resolution was Mayor Joe Riley. Without it there would be no Union Pier Development as cruise ships were an integral part of the plan.

Without the proposed visits (up to two a week), there would be no development and none of the benefits that came with the plan – the creation of open space, the removal of the aged warehouses, the relocation of the BMW loading area to North Charleston and the cessation of trains trips, the substantial reduction in truck and car journeys related to the port.

The mayor also spoke of his surprise at the hyperbole of the opponents and their misrepresentations.

He also took exception to a resident who criticized the Union Pier Plan because it brought in a class of tourist that was not compatible with the Charleston brand, i.e., not having much money to spend. Councilman James Lewis Jr. also took strong exception to the resident’s view.

Only Councilman William Dudley Gregorie questioned the plan. He asked for a deferral of consideration because he had heard conflicting views in relation to pollution control.

He also wanted more details in relation to ordinances brought about by other cities or states. These were answered by Riley, other council members and staff.