NL maritime society still seeking access to lighthouse

New London — The New London Maritime Society again has failed to clear a city zoning hurdle allowing public access to New London Harbor Light, one of its three historic lighthouses.

The Planning and Zoning Commission last Thursday denied the nonprofit's recent application to alter zoning regulations and add a definition for "historic properties" throughout the city.

Maritime society President Edward J. Cubanski III, a retired U.S. Coast Guard captain, said the application was the first step in getting the city to acknowledge the importance of historical structures. The proposal would have allowed structures to be designated as "historic properties" if they are listed on the National Register of Historic Places or otherwise recognized by the State Historic Preservation Office of the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism.

"We believe that amendments are needed to the zoning regulations so custodians and curators of such historic sanctuaries can share the history as well as conduct activities to ensure historic preservation," Cubanski wrote in his application.

The proposal was not specific to New London Harbor Light off of Pequot Avenue but the overall intent was to open the door for visitors to the iconic structure, something that hasn’t been allowed since 2015, when the city issued a cease-and-desist order shortly after restoration was completed and neighbors started noticing an increase in activity at the site.

“The New London Maritime Society feels that promoting historic and cultural tourism within the city is going to bring people to this rich maritime historic area,” Cubanski told the commission. “It’s going to benefit the city, not hurt it.”

Opposition to the zoning amendment was overwhelming, however, with much of it coming from neighbors of the lighthouse in the city’s south end, home to some of the most valuable homes in the city as well as the top residential taxpayers.

Pequot Avenue resident Edward Young, who said he lives three houses away from the lighthouse and pays $53,000 a year in taxes on his home, told the Planning and Zoning Commission that passage of the amendment would “destroy” home values in the residentially zoned area.

Beverly Steinman, a Parkway South resident, said if the amendment passed, “we taxpayers will be fighting more noise, more disorderly conduct, littering, traffic and parking congestion and the slippery slope potential for land use changes to move further into the neighborhood.”

In addition to designation of historic properties, the maritime society’s proposal would have required no minimum lot size restriction, as opposed to the 20,000-square-foot required for libraries, museums and art galleries. The proposal also would designate one off-street parking space for the owner or manager and a provision that allows parking off-street parking for visitors within 500 feet of the historical structure.

Randy Waesche, who owns a home adjacent to Harbor Light and has a property line dispute against the maritime society pending in federal court, questioned both the need to change zoning citywide and the lack of minimum lot size requirements. He said the proposal was an attempt to circumvent existing regulations and would be unenforceable.

The Planning and Zoning Commission voted 5-2 against the application.

Commission Chairman Barry Levine, who voted against, said he could not support the application with no minimum lot size requirement. He said the proposal also did not explain “what this gives anyone a right to do with an historic property.”

Commissioner Paul Reid said the lack of a minimum lot requirement could be detrimental to neighbors especially in residentially zoned areas, which make up more than 30 percent of the city.

“I am not opposed to having more tourism for historic district sites. However, I just believe there could be a different way of going about it ... that benefits the entire area and not just a small portion,” Reid said.

It is the second defeat for the maritime society, which had applied a year ago to modify zoning regulations to allow for tours and events at historical properties in residentially zoned areas of the city.

Cubanski said the society would continue to work with the city and neighbors to try and come to an amicable solution to obtain access to the lighthouse. He called the commission’s decision “unfortunate.”

He said the maritime society planned to write letters to the city asking for clarification on access to the lighthouse, whether the society’s own members can do things like hold meetings at the lighthouse. He said he also wondered about the city’s long-term vision.

g.smith@theday.com

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