Preservationists: Cruise ships may endanger city's historical status

CHARLESTON, SC (CBS/WCSC) - Ships from around the world have docked in Charleston since the 1600's. However, some residents say the city's historic port is a little too welcoming especially for giant cruise liners.

Preservationists believe the giant cruise ships that dock there might be endangering the city's historical status.

"Instead of looking out to the water as you would normally do, when this ship is here it looms larger and taller than any building in downtown Charleston," said resident Dana Beach.

Charleston may be a port, but Evan Thompson, who runs the city's preservation society, says these boats are simply too big.

"When you look at the waterfront, from a historic point of view, most of the ships are of a much smaller scale," said Thompson.

Thompson also fears air and water pollution, along with increased traffic from the 2,000 passengers who descend upon the city from each ship. He helped nominate the city for the national trust's most endangered list.

It didn't make the cut, but Charleston was placed under watch status for fear that any more ships might jeopardize the historic character of the city.

"With our building, we have to power wash every two months to get the soot off of it from these smokestacks," said Beach.

"We're not trying to run the ships out of town, we're trying to establish reasonable limits," said Thompson."We limit the number of people on walking tours. We limit the number of petty cabs. Every little minute aspect of tourism is managed and yet this is totally unregulated."

Mayor Joe Riley says there's a simple explanation for that:

"The city doesn't have the power, the legal power, to regulate the water side activities of the State Ports Authority," says Riley.

He also insists that the cruises are in no danger of damaging Charleston.

"The National Trust, I think, just made a big mistake,"Riley said."They're wrong. It's in perfect scale. It's in correct balance. It's good for the city."

Plus, he says, they're keeping people employed.

"The cruise business creates jobs.From the longshoremen working on the waterfront, to the people who service the ships, to the jobs created in our remarkably beautiful downtown area," says Riley.

Dolores Hammerlune has been a vendor in Charleston's open-air market for 18 years.

"I enjoy having tourist ships in town. It's helped all the businesses down here in Charleston," says Hammerlune.

But what's good for business isn't necessarily good for the city.  Although the mayor insists that the port authority and it's cruise lines have their own strict environmental standards, some residents want more than just blind trust.

"We need to be able to, as a community, go to city council if this gets out of hand and say 'Look, we're tightening the limits,'" Thompson says.

"If we could simply get a handle on the number of visits, the amount of impact. Everybody would be very happy with the ships," says Beach.

Riley emphasizes that ships are regulated by the State Port Authority, not the city. But the two sides have agreed that the number of cruise ships won't exceed 104 per year. Which, by the way, he  doesn't see happening any time soon.

And as he puts it, of the four million visitors they have to Charleston each year, only about 200,000 are cruise ship passengers.

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