Log In

Reset Password
  • MENU
    Local Columns
    Sunday, October 01, 2023

    OPINION: Stonington won’t enforce deeded public waterfront access in Mystic

    A private sign and gate is on a riverfront dock in downtown Mystic that is open to the public. (David Collins/The Day)
    Buy Photo Reprints
    The shrubbery on the property south of S&P Oyster Restaurant blocks a view of the river that is promised by a public easement to the town. (David Collins/The Day)
    Buy Photo Reprints

    It seems pretty obvious to me that a closed gate on the riverfront dock in downtown Mystic ― with a sign in big letters proclaiming “PRIVATE DOCK” ― is hardly welcoming the public to the waterfront access to which it is entitled.

    I have come to learn the obstruction of this valuable public waterfront access, which was promised in the deal made in 1982 to allow construction of condominiums and what is now the S&P Oyster Restaurant and Bar on Holmes Street, has been a longtime dispute between the property owners and town officials.

    In reading through hundreds of pages and years of town records related to the property, I found one of the best town attacks on the closed gate, and a similar sign once posted there, came from former Stonington Zoning Enforcement Officer Joe Larkin, who wrote an admonishment about it in a 1993 inspection report.

    “The average passerby would probably interpret the various messages presented as stated to mean: Private, keep off, rather than come and enjoy a leisurely stroll on the dock along the river’s edge.”

    Access to the dock and the terms of an easement that requires unobstructed views across the southern end of the property from Main Street, near the historic drawbridge, have been the subject of numerous applications, enforcements and even a lawsuit over the years.

    Not only is the public supposed to have full daytime access to the entire stretch of the property’s waterfront, according to decisions and interpretations by numerous planning officials over the years, but a deeded easement also gives the public the right to use the undeveloped riverfront property near the restaurant’s outdoor deck on Main Street.

    And the easement prohibits the kind of tall vegetation that now blocks a view of the river across the site from Main Street, from which the public is supposed to be able to clearly look at the water.

    I have been trying to nudge the town into some enforcement of the public access since January, but I’ve hit a brick wall.

    David and Robert Valenti, who the town has dealt with as representatives of the legal entity that owns the property, did not respond to an email asking about the overgrown shrubbery obstructing the view and the “PRIVATE DOCK” sign on the public access.

    First Selectman Danielle Chesebrough, who I’m sure doesn’t like me, has refused to respond to a week of my emails on the topic. The town’s new planner started work Monday, so I certainly give him a pass for now on not responding or getting involved right away in the controversy.

    The town has responded only through Candace Palmer, the zoning enforcement officer, who, unlike her predecessor, and other town planning officials who have opined on it over the years, does not have a problem with the gate and sign.

    Palmer, who I will give credit for finding and providing me the entire file on the property, unfortunately has, in my opinion, a conflict of interest and should exclude herself from the issue.

    She told me she doesn’t agree.

    A dispute over the easement between the town and restaurant property owners ended up before a Superior Court judge, whose ruling on the 1982 agreement resulted in permission in 2000 to allow a dining patio on the property. The judge said it didn’t conflict with the easement since it would be close to the ground and not interfere with the view.

    Palmer had been general manager of the restaurant for some time while the dispute over the easement raged, as it initially blocked approvals of the patio, and she referred to it one communication with the town as something that had “plagued” the restaurant.

    That easement, filed in town land records, very specifically says the area between the restaurant and Main Street should be preserved as a grassy area accessible to the public.

    It gives the town permission to cut vegetation that blocks the view of the river. It is clearly not grassy or accessible at this time, and trees meant to give privacy to diners on the terrace clearly block the view of the water from the street.

    Palmer did not respond when I asked about the trees blocking the view, in obvious violation of the easement.

    In regards to the dock sign, she suggested language in type smaller than the “PRIVATE DOCK” wording indicates that pedestrians are allowed.

    I agree with former enforcement officer that the public is being turned away not welcomed.

    I hope the town’s new planning director will soon get up to speed enough to get involved in enforcing the public’s valuable rights to see and walk along the water.

    Fortunately, there is an election coming up, and Stonington residents can add respect for public waterfront access to issues like regulating short-term rentals and transparency about the need to stop an unnecessary state rebuild of the Stonington Borough viaduct as good reasons for a change in town leadership.

    This is the opinion of David Collins.


    Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.