Maritime society, neighbor settle lawsuit over New London lighthouse

New London Harbor Light on Pequot Avenue in New London is seen from the air May 11, 2005.  (Sean D. Elliot/photo)
New London Harbor Light on Pequot Avenue in New London is seen from the air May 11, 2005. (Sean D. Elliot/photo)

New London — The New London Maritime Society has reached a settlement with one of the neighbors of Harbor Light, ending a long-running federal lawsuit over a property line dispute.

The nonprofit organization may have smoothed things over with one neighbor but remains in a legal land-use fight with the city over public access to the historic Pequot Avenue lighthouse.

Randy and Bonita Waesche, who own the 800 Pequot Ave. home adjacent to the lighthouse, originally filed suit in 2014 shortly after the maritime society began what the Waesches claimed was unpermitted renovation work that included construction of a granite wall and walkway precariously close to their pool.

The Waesches argued the wall was forcing the increasing number of visitors onto their property. The maritime society argued the land was theirs.

In the end, the Waesches have agreed to purchase the sliver of disputed property for an undisclosed amount of money. The final documents were signed last week, Randy Waesche said.

The maritime society has created an opening through the shoreline-facing end of the granite wall that will allow visitors a more direct and safer route to access the lighthouse with less chance of people wandering into the Waesches' yard and onto the former lighthouse keeper's property now owned by Elizabeth Ring

“It took a little bit to get there but it works out to the benefit of both parties,” said Edward J. Cubanski III, president of the New London Maritime Society.

The lighthouse property is a narrow stretch of land bordered by the Waesches' home on one side and by Ring's on the other. Ring has had trouble in the past with lighthouse visitors on her property.

Cubanski said he hoped the end of the lawsuit would help rebuild a fractured relationship with neighbors. The society also plans some work in the spring to install a railing system at the wall opening.

Randy Waesche said he always had offered to pay for the entrance through the wall but the relationship with certain members of the maritime society has been less than cordial. It was the reason that a settlement in the lawsuit took so long, he said.

“We never wanted to be in dispute with our neighbors. Capt. Cubanski has reached out and has been much more enjoyable to work with,” Waesche said.

Cubanski, a retired captain with the U.S. Coast Guard, was elected as the society’s president in 2016 and replaced George Sprecace, who was the president during a span of time that the society acquired three lighthouses from the federal government. Along with Harbor Light, the society owns Ledge Light and Race Rock Light. The maritime society purchased Harbor Light, the oldest and tallest lighthouse in the state, in 2009.

The resolution of the suit doesn’t mean the ongoing issue of trying to bring more visitors to the lighthouse has ended. Cubanski said the maritime society plans to focus its energy on a lawsuit it filed in 2015 in response to a Zoning Board of Appeals decision upholding a cease-and-desist order.

In June 2015 the city’s zoning enforcement officer issued the cease-and-desist order to block tours, noting the use of the lighthouse at that time had increased and was “no longer a passive operation of a lighthouse where a lighthouse keeper may have allowed visitors from time to time to tour the lighthouse.” Instead, groups of visitors had begun arriving on occasion.

The organization argues in its appeal that the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 and the deed to the lighthouse require that the society make the lighthouse open for education, recreation, cultural and historic preservation purposes for the general public or risk the property reverting back to the government's ownership. It has made several legal arguments including a claim that the "free tours to the public is a legal nonconforming use" that predates city zoning regulations.

Randy Waesche has filed paperwork to intervene in the case and defend the city’s position. He also vigorously had fought against the maritime society’s past unsuccessful attempts to alter zoning regulations and allow tours of the lighthouse and other historic properties in residential neighborhoods by special permit.

“Their needs and goals are to generate revenue. I totally understand that,” Waesche said. “We bought a home in a residential district and don’t want people parking all over the streets and tromping through our property. It is in conflict with a residential neighborhood.”

Cubanski maintains the city has unfairly placed restrictions on a landmark that has long been open to the public.

“We believe the public is being denied access to a national historic treasure. That’s a shame,” Cubanski said.

Elizabeth Ring, owner of the former lighthouse keeper’s home, said she remains highly skeptical of any promises the New London Maritime Society makes based on its past actions, which has included a lawsuit against her, blatant improper use of her property and attempts to stir up hostility against neighbors.

“No, I don’t anticipate the maritime society being respectful of residents' privacy or keeping promises, based on past experience,” Ring said in an email. “Their proposed plan for the site involves 3,000 visitors a year! The site is simply too narrow, squeezed between residences, with no parking or bathrooms. When they had visitors there before, they wandered all over our properties, not even knowing that our place is not part of maritime society property.”

“If they had behaved legally and ethically from the start, there probably would have been small regulated tours years ago,” Ring said.

With public access to Harbor Light still blocked, Cubanski said the maritime society is making a concerted effort this summer on upkeep at the iconic Ledge Light, applying for grants that would help fund general maintenance work. The group also is seeking a partner to run lighthouse tours.

g.smith@theday.com

The Custom House Maritime Museum and New London Maritime Society make some announcements at the New London Harbor Light on June 20, 2013.  The New London Maritime Society and a neighbor have settled a long-running lawsuit regarding access to the lighthouse.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
The Custom House Maritime Museum and New London Maritime Society make some announcements at the New London Harbor Light on June 20, 2013. The New London Maritime Society and a neighbor have settled a long-running lawsuit regarding access to the lighthouse. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

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