New London Maritime Society loses zoning appeal for Harbor Lighthouse

New London — The Zoning Board of Appeals late Thursday upheld a cease-and-desist order barring the New London Maritime Society from conducting tours of New London Harbor Light.

Zoning Board of Appeals Chairwoman Ann Keating said the board voted unanimously and members felt the New London Maritime Society should have sought a special permit from the Planning and Zoning Commission and designation as a museum.

Society President George Sprecace said Friday he was disappointed in the decision, but the society would consider seeking a museum designation for the lighthouse and a special permit through the appropriate land use commission.

The board’s decision came following a more than six-hour meeting Thursday that featured a cadre of attorneys and an audience full of lighthouse supporters.

While the Maritime Society argues it is continuing a tradition by allowing visitors at the lighthouse on Pequot Avenue, the city’s zoning enforcement official said the increase in activity at the site warrants proper approvals, especially considering it is in a residentially zoned area.

The society, a nonprofit group that runs the Custom House Maritime Museum on Bank Street, acquired the historic lighthouse in 2009 from the federal government through the National Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000.

Major renovations started last year through a fundraising effort and the society was conducting tours by appointment to visitors and students alike.

The construction at the site and the increase in number of visitors led to friction with the abutting property owners.

Neighbors to the north, Donald and Bonita Waesche, are suing the society in federal court over a disputed property line.

Elizabeth Ring, who owns the former lighthouse keeper’s home at 810 Pequot, said that at times she was “virtually excluded from using our own property” because of the activity at the lighthouse.

Donald Waesche, who owns the home at 800 Pequot Ave., argued Thursday at the meeting that the society was running what amounted to a commercial venture in a residential neighborhood.

It was the complaints of the major increase in activity, along with what Zoning Enforcement Officer Michelle Johnson Scovish said was a lack of documentation provided by the society about what was going on, that led to the issuance of the cease-and-desist order in June.

Sprecace said the ZBA should never have taken a vote on Thursday, considering the mountain of documents that had been introduced into the record “that fairly and legally required review and analysis by the board after the meeting.”

“Of course we are disappointed that the documented facts in the matter were given such short shrift … by conducting a vote before the board had had an opportunity to consider those facts dispassionately,” Sprecace said.

Sprecace also expressed frustration in the conduct of a board member and of an abutting homeowner.

“For the latter part of the meeting one of the board members seemed to reflect the fatigue and irritation of other members by pointedly suggesting that, ‘if you had made believe the lighthouse is a museum and had sought a zoning variance on that basis we would not have been put through all this,’” Sprecace said.

Established in 1760, New London Harbor Light is the oldest and tallest lighthouse on Long Island Sound.

g.smith@theday.com

Twitter: @SmittyDay

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