New London lighthouse owners face legal battles on three fronts
New London — The New London Maritime Society, already facing property disputes with neighbors to the north and south of New London Harbor Light, is now embroiled in a third legal battle as they appeal a cease-and-desist order from the city.
The June 15 order requires the nonprofit organization to stop any tours at the historic lighthouse off Pequot Avenue until they obtain “the requisite approvals” from local land use commissions for use of the property as well as improvements already made at the property.
In their order, the city’s zoning and wetlands enforcement officer also noted the increase in activity at the lighthouse.
“It would appear that the current ‘use’ of the lighthouse has increased and is no longer a passive operation of a lighthouse where a lighthouse keeper may have allowed visitors from time to time to tour the lighthouse, the current use is more in line with a museum type use,” the order reads.
Museums are permitted in the area but only with a special permit.
The Maritime Society, which runs the Custom House Maritime Museum and owns three lighthouses, acquired the lighthouse from the federal government in 2009 through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act. They completed major renovations late last year.
Trouble started soon after when neighbors sued the society, claiming the society “acted arrogantly” when they constructed a walkway, retaining wall and allowed construction workers and visitors to trespass on a portion of their property to the north.
The lawsuit filed by Donald and Bonita Waesche and Ara Pacis LLC alleges the society completed restoration work without permits and expanded the use of the property into a “money making venture.”
Later, neighbors John and Elizabeth Ring, who own property on the southern side of the lighthouse, erected a small shrub and metal barrier with a “no trespassing, no lighthouse access,” sign blocking access to the lighthouse from the south.
Members of the Maritime Society said the lighthouse was vacant for some time and it appears neighbors are intent on keeping it that way.
Maritime Society President George Sprecace said that in the ongoing federal lawsuit by the Waesche family, the society claims a land survey completed by the society will prove they are wrong.
The society has obtained a temporary injunction against the Rings in superior court while that case is pending. The society seeks to prove that historic access to the lighthouse door was a granite walkway over a portion of the Ring’s property and an easement is in place for that purpose, Sprecace said.
In the meantime, the two sides reached a temporary agreement allowing two visits to the lighthouse per week by groups not to exceed six people accompanied by a society docent.
Sprecace and Maritime Society Executive Director Susan Tamulevich both said they had met with former City Planner Harry Smith and provided the city with a voluminous amount of documents pertaining to the restoration work at the lighthouse before anything was started.
“They were well aware of everything we were doing,” Sprecace said. “When questions were raised by zoning folks … we felt they were answered by simply having them look at the material we sent. The next thing we know we were given a cease and desist order."
The appeal is to be heard sometime in August, he said.
“We are obliged by the terms of the federal government to keep the property open to the public in a reasonable way for education because it is an historic site,” Sprecace said. “That is a requirement. We are basically stewards of the lighthouse on behalf of the public. Our actions and intentions are to keep the property open in a reasonable way. We have been thwarted in good part from keeping it open this summer by all of this.”
“It’s unfortunate we have such limited funds to pay for lawyers instead of doing the public’s business. It also takes a tremendous amount of out time. It’s unfortunate, however, what’s right is right,” he said.
Tamulevich agreed and said the society has bent over backwards to be decent neighbors despite the fact the survey of the property and land records will help prove neighbors wrong.
“It’s pretty much killed our season this year, costing us a ton of money,” she said. “We’re just a small nonprofit and the fact is it doesn’t seem to be about finding options or finding ways to make it work, it’s about preventing all access.”
Volunteers will continue to work to clean up the property, replace a fence with stones and finish a walkway to the lighthouse.
“I’m a little exhausted but I’m not done yet,” she said. “We own a fantastic monument and we continue to have people donate to our cause.”