A permit for New London lighthouse not such a bad idea
Ideally, the recent decision by the Zoning Board of Appeals that the New London Harbor Light should be treated as a museum under city zoning rules will be an opportunity for cooperation, rather than a cause for more litigation and further acrimony with the lighthouse neighbors.
The New London Maritime Society obtained the historic lighthouse on Pequot Avenue in 2009 from the federal government under the National Lighthouse Preservation Act. In accordance with that act, it has made efforts to make the lighthouse available to the public and taken steps to repair and preserve it. The Maritime Society, a nonprofit group that also operates the Custom House Maritime Museum on Bank Street and is caretaker for other historic lighthouses in the area, including Ledge Light and Race Rock Light, is a good steward.
However, there has been friction between the society and lighthouse neighbors over the society’s efforts to accommodate visitors. Neighbors complain that visitors to the lighthouse have infringed on their privacy and that the society has not done an adequate job of managing the situation.
Zoning Enforcement Officer Michelle Johnson Scovish issued a cease-and-desist order in June. Following a hearing last week, the ZBA sided with the opinion of its ZEO that the Maritime Society needs a special permit to operate the lighthouse as a museum in the residential area.
While the society could make the legal case that its obligation under the National Lighthouse Preservation Act to keep the lighthouse accessible to the public trumps the local land-use regulations, or find other legal grounds to challenge the ZBA ruling, the better course of action would be cooperation.
The Maritime Society would certainly be deserving of the special permit. The public has a right to learn about the lighthouse that dates to 1760 and is the oldest and tallest on Long Island Sound. This is a city asset, enriching the experience of visitors to New London.
However, the process of obtaining a special permit can address issues of providing a clear right of way to access the lighthouse, including landscaping and signage that will dissuade visitors from impeding on surrounding properties, and establish hours of operation for lighthouse tours and activities.
If the Maritime Society should find its request for a special permit blocked by unreasonable demands, the option of playing the federal authority card, or otherwise seeking legal redress, would remain.
For now, the best option is to try to work things out.