New London lighthouse owners fight cease-and-desist order

New London — The New London Maritime Society claims New London Harbor Light, even when operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, had always accommodated visitors.

Neighbors and the city’s zoning enforcement officer argue that guided tours and improvements at the property off Pequot Avenue have significantly altered its designation and therefore require zoning permits.

The two sides made their arguments before the Zoning Board of Appeals Thursday in a meeting that attracted about 75 people, mostly lighthouse supporters, and was expected to last into the late evening.

It was unclear if the board planned to make a decision Thursday night.

The Maritime Society is appealing a cease-and-desist order from the city that Zoning Enforcement Officer Michelle Johnson Scovish said was a last resort but a necessary result of a lack of documentation provided by the society over the course of a year.

“Through this whole process the city has tried to work with the society,” Scovish said. “We tried to obtain information from the society … to make a determination whether or not we should issue a cease-and desist order, which is the last thing the city wants to do.”

There is a process the society needs to follow if they want to operate as a “museum,” the closest definition of a use Scovish said the city has in its zoning regulations and one that is allowed only with a special permit.

The cease-and-desist order was initiated by the abutting property owners, Donald and Bonita Waesche, who are fighting the Maritime Society in federal court over what they say is unpermitted construction at the site along with increased use of the property.

The New London Maritime Society obtained the property, which is in the middle of a residential neighborhood, from the federal government in 2009.

Maritime Society Director Susan Tamulevich was in tears as she spoke about the missed opportunities caused by the ongoing legal disputes and said she was baffled by the opposition to opening up the lighthouse to school groups and visitors, at no charge.

Society attorney John Casey, who also represents the organization in the federal lawsuit, spent 45 minutes at Thursday’s meeting talking about historical uses of lighthouses and argued it is a “pre-existing nonconforming use,” and therefore legally protected.

Comparing the situation to a homeowner inviting over guests, Casey said, “here we are defending the idea that a property owner can bring people to visit their own property.”

He also hinted at the fact that he will argue in federal court that the lighthouse might in fact be exempt from all local zoning laws if he can prove it is being used in the same way it was by the federal government before its transfer.

Attorney Paul Geraghty, who represents abutting property owner Elizabeth Ring, said the crux of the issue was the fact the Maritime Society did not follow local zoning laws. He shrugged off any notion they may be exempt.

“We’re not saying you shouldn’t be allowed to (give tours),” Geraghty said. “We’re saying you need to do it within the confines and the constructs of the law established for everyone.”

Numerous people were signed up to speak during a public comment portion of the meeting at press time.

g.smith@theday.com

Twotter: @SmittyDay

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