Judge clears path for public access to New London Harbor Light

New London Harbor Light is seen Sept. 14, 2013, from the air.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
New London Harbor Light is seen Sept. 14, 2013, from the air. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

New London — A Superior Court judge has sided with the New London Maritime Society in what has been a yearslong struggle to reopen the historic New London Harbor Light to the public.

A written decision by New London Superior Court Judge Kimberly Knox reverses a 2015 decision by the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals that upheld a cease-and-desist order and barred public tours of the Pequot Avenue lighthouse.

The decision is being hailed as a win by both sides.

While it overturns the ZBA decision, it also appears to curtail the maritime society’s future plans by limiting activity to “small guided tours of the lighthouse upon request.”

Knox ruled that the New London Maritime Society’s use of the lighthouse should be consistent with its historic use: infrequent and small-scale visits guided by a lighthouse keeper who lived on site during a time that predated the local zoning regulations enacted in 1928.

Knox remanded the matter back to the ZBA for determination of the extent of tours.

New London Maritime Society President Edward J. Cubanski III declined immediate comment on the Oct. 2 ruling because, he said, he was awaiting word on whether the city plans to appeal. Cubanski was elected president in December 2016 at the height of a sometimes contentious battle with neighbors and the city over use of the Harbor Light.

Attorney Jeffrey Londregan, who represented the ZBA in the case, said his recommendation to the ZBA will be to not appeal.

“I think it was a resounding victory for the city,” Londregan said. “The judge basically said the public tours and regular hours of operation and intensity the maritime society was putting on the property was not a pre-existing nonconforming use. The judge said all of that should stop. The only thing permitted is informal tours that were historically offered prior to 2009, when the (maritime society) purchased the property.”

The maritime society, the owner of three lighthouses, has argued that public tours of the lighthouse, albeit infrequent and on a small scale, have been allowed since the 1800s.

Knox agreed that the historical use of the lighthouse should continue as a valid nonconforming use in a residential neighborhood. The cease-and-desist order issued in 2015 that completely denies access was, however, “an unlawful restriction on the plaintiff’s use of the lighthouse,” she wrote.

“It’s definitely a win compared to where we were prior to the decision,” said attorney John Casey, who represents the maritime society. “The fact that the public can be brought in for tours is definitely something the maritime society is happy about.”

Knox, however, did not agree with the maritime society’s argument that the lighthouse pre-empts zoning altogether. She also supported the ZBA’s conclusion that “large tour groups, open houses, school trips, and regular hours of operation,” constitute a change of character and are not consistent with the historical use of the property.

The city issued the cease-and-desist order a year after the maritime society performed renovations at the lighthouse and a neighbor filed a lawsuit over a property line dispute.

The suit was settled earlier this year with an agreement that the neighbor buy a sliver of the disputed land and the maritime society open a new entryway through a rock wall for visitors to directly access the lighthouse.

The maritime society has made at least two unsuccessful attempts to alter zoning regulations and have the lighthouse be designated a historic property with special rights and access.

The first Harbor Light, sometimes known as Pequot Light, was built in 1761. Rebuilt in 1801, it is the tallest and oldest lighthouse in Connecticut and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It was acquired by the New London Maritime Society in 2009 as part of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. The maritime society acquired Race Rock Light and Ledge Light in a similar manner.

g.smith@theday.com

Editor's Note: The current New London Harbor Light was built in 1801. That information was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

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