Lawsuits challenge tours of New London lighthouse
New London — Members of the New London Maritime Society were optimistic that a ruling by a Superior Court judge opening the Harbor Light to public tours might put to rest years of litigation with neighbors of the historic Pequot Avenue lighthouse.
They were wrong.
A state marshal served Maritime Society Executive Director Susan Tamulevich with a lawsuit Thursday at the Custom House Maritime Museum, just a day after she guided the first tour of the lighthouse in more than three years.
Lighthouse neighbors Randy and Bonita Waesche and Richard Humphreville have each filed suit against both the Maritime Society and the Zoning Board of Appeals arguing that the ZBA’s Feb. 28 decision to allow 12 tours per week, or up to five tours in a day and 600 in a year, is far afield from what a Superior Court judge called “small infrequent, guided tours of the Lighthouse upon request.”
Randy Waesche said he was “shocked” by the ZBA decision that he argues allows a commercial venture in the middle of a residential neighborhood. The Maritime Society is advertising tours on its website for groups of up to five people — with a price between $15 and $30 per person.
For now, Tamulevich said the Maritime Society will continue tours as scheduled. She called the suit a “sad development” amid the excitement of gaining public access back to one of the three lighthouses owned by the nonprofit group.
“The judge made a decision and (the Waesches) were not allowed to weigh in. The case was not about the neighbors, it was about zoning laws and pre-existing rights,” Tamulevich said. “We have a right established by the court.”
Randy Waesche said important to the context of the argument is that prior tours were given when the lighthouse was a government installation.
"That's completely different than what's going on today," he said. "No visitor, as infrequent as they were, ever paid to go there."
The Maritime Society has been locked in land-use battles with the neighbors and the city since not long after it purchased the lighthouse from the federal government in 2009, collected donations and restored the light in anticipation of bringing in visitors.
The Waesches, at 800 Pequot Ave., and another abutting neighbor living in the former lighthouse keeper’s home complained about unpermitted construction work at the site and visitors to the lighthouse treading on private property. Humphreville, whose suit mirrors the Waesches, owns a home at 824 Pequot Ave.
It led to a cease-and-desist order from the city that stopped tours from continuing. The zoning enforcement officer at the time said the Maritime Society increased activity had gone beyond any historical activity there.
There was also a border dispute that led to a federal lawsuit in 2014 filed by the Waesches.
The Maritime Society, after a few attempts to create special zoning regulations, sued the Zoning Board of Appeals.
The Waesches settled the border dispute lawsuit with the Maritime Society by buying a sliver of land from the Maritime Society.
Superior Court Judge Kimberly Knox in October, in response to the Maritime Society’s suit, reversed the ZBA decision that backed the cease-and-desist order. In her decision, Knox agreed the lighthouse was open for occasional tours to the public before the residential area grew around it. Knox ruled that completely denying access to all visitors was an unlawful restriction on the use of the lighthouse but she also banned “large tour groups, open houses, school trips, and regular hours of operation,” things that were inconsistent with the past use.
Knox left it to the ZBA to determine what constituted “small guided tours of the lighthouse upon request.”
The Waesches argue the Maritime Society was able to demonstrate three visits inside the Lighthouse over an 80-year span, between 1928 and 2008 — far different from the 600 allowed per year under the ZBA ruling.
The suit calls the ZBA’s decision an “abuse of discretion,” and asks for a court ruling that declares null and void the recent ZBA decision with a declaration that the number of tours granted is “neither infrequent, nor of the same character as the previous tours given before 1928 or 2009.”
The city’s attorney was not immediately available to comment.
Editor's note: This story was updated to include information about the second lawsuit filed by Richard Humphreville.