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Niantic shellfish farmer argues his case before East Lyme Zoning Board of Appeals

East Lyme — Town officials are weighing whether the zoning enforcement officer appropriately issued a cease and desist order to shellfish farmer Tim Londregan last fall.

During a marathon public hearing Monday, Zoning Board of Appeals officials heard testimony, presentations and arguments from residents and attorneys representing the town and Londregan, who appealed the Oct. 7 order to stop operating his commercial shellfish business, Niantic Bay Shellfish Farm, at the Marker 7 Marina just west of the Niantic River Bridge.

The order, issued by Bill Mulholland, claims that Londregan is violating town zoning laws because he is "processing" shellfish at the marina before landing and shipping them.

Representing Mulholland, attorney Tim Bleasdale of New London-based Waller Smith & Palmer argued Monday that Londregan is processing his shellfish by putting them through a large, cylindrical metal tumbler for cleaning and sorting before landing and shipping them. The tumbler, which has prompted noise complaints from recreational boaters and residents, is placed on top of Londregan’s large barge-like vessel, called a “shellplex,” which moors at the Marker 7 Marina.

The order also asserts that Londregan must obtain town permits by way of a Coastal Area Management site plan review through the town’s Zoning Commission to operate out of the Marker 7 Marina. Shellfishing activity, according to Mulholland, is prohibited within the Commercial Marine zone where the Marker 7 Marina is situated. While Londregan claims to operate the marina, it is owned by Niantic River Marina Inc., whose President Alfonso Morgillo also was included on the cease-and-desist order.

The present Coastal Area Management site plan, which was drafted under the state’s Coastal Management Act allowing towns to regulate land-based activities along their coastline, restricts this specific marina to “recreational and pleasure boating” activities, Mulholland said in an interview with The Day earlier on Monday. Londregan therefore must receive permission through the town, and then through the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, to conduct his on-land business activities at the marina, which as of now, includes landing his shellfish on the property by carrying them in bags up the dock to the land before icing, boxing and shipping them.

Londregan — represented by his uncle, Thomas Londregan of the New London-based Conway, Londregan, Sheehan & Monaco, P.C. law firm — argued that the cease-and-desist order was invalid because the town is not accurately interpreting the definition of “processing.” He also argues that his nephew's activities on land and water do not fall under town jurisdiction, but rather are regulated through the state and, because of their nature, are exempt from a coastal area site plan review.

“Processing itself is not prohibited. A processing plant is," Thomas Londregan said to the ZBA on Monday. "But he’s not processing to begin with. He takes a raw oyster out of the water in its shell. And it leaves his property as a raw oyster in its shell. Common sense has got to tell you that there has been no processing of that raw oyster.”

Attorney Londregan argued that his nephew is conducting his business legally, as he has several state-issued licenses and permits, as well as a recent DEEP-granted Certificate of Permission allowing him to conduct “additional water-dependent uses” and make changes at Marker 7. Tim Londregan still must go through the town’s Planning Commission to carry out those changes at the marina, Thomas Londregan acknowledged.

His nephew’s business activities on land fall under two exemptions outlined in town’s Coastal Area Management laws, Thomas Londregan argued, and therefore don't need a Coastal Area Management site plan review that the town says is required.

Those exemptions outline that “gardening, grazing and the harvesting of crops” do not require the site plan review, as well as “activities conducted for the specific purpose of conserving or preserving soil, vegetation, water, fish, shellfish, wildlife and other coastal land and water resources.” Thomas Londregan argued his nephew’s product is considered a crop by the state Department of Agriculture and that Tim Londregan preserves his shellfish by icing them once on land.

Thomas Londregan also argued that the town has not consistently regulated boat owners or other businesses conducting similar commercial activity within the commercial marine zone and are therefore unfairly issuing the cease-and-desist order. He alluded that the order was a specific hit of sorts on Tim Londregan's shellfish-farming business which has generated much local opposition from riverfront businesses after his 2017 proposal to use about six acres in the Niantic River for aquaculture farming, specifically to grow juvenile shellfish before moving them to the Niantic Bay.

After it was discovered the Waterford-East Lyme Shellfish Commission had not gone through the proper procedures to grant Tim Londregan a lease to use the proposed river space, his original application for the project was rescinded. He since has submitted and withdrawn another proposal for a different aquaculture project in the river. He has told The Day he still is looking to expand his business and grow shellfish in the river but has been prevented by stringent opposition from residents and nearby marina businesses.

Such residents were at Monday’s hearing, some of whom claimed that Londregan has never properly followed permitting protocol and that his negligence has negatively impacted local business and quality of life on the river. Niantic River Advocacy Coalition President Terry Lineberger, who actively has opposed Londregan’s aquaculture proposals, said Monday, “He does what he wants, expands his operations at will, and looks to legitimize them later. He has been aided and supported by the local shellfish commissions and the DEEP despite the fact he has not had the proper permits for his operations in the Niantic River.”

Others in support of Tim Londregan argued his business is essential to the town’s identity and that it should be supported.

“For me, I find row upon row of boats with marine engines, smelly and stinky and leaving a sheen of oil, polluting the water, objectionable,” resident Tom Kalal said. “As Niantic Bay scallops made Niantic yesterday, I am proud to have a local sustainable oyster operation in our town.”

Attorney Bleasdale maintained, “The town is not against Mr. (Tim) Londregan’s aquaculture operations in the river or in the bay, (this order) is simply about the use of these docks.”

Tim Londregan first started conducting his shellfishing business from four pilings located closed to the Waterford side of the river near Mago Point four years ago, but moved his operations in 2018 after a “bomb cyclone” storm uprooted his pilings to the Marker 7 Marina.

Since then, Tim Londregan has berthed two of his shellfishing vessels — a boat and his shellplex — at the marina, where he often runs his tumbler in spring, summer and fall months.

Tim Londregan was first made aware that he may be violating zoning laws after First Selectman Mark Nickerson requested through email on May 7 to have a meeting about the regulations, according to emails included in the Londregans' testimony. Tim Londregan testified that at that first meeting he disputed with Nickerson and Mulholland the definition of processing and disagreed with their assessment that he was violating zoning regulations.

Mulholland issued the order in October after he said he conducted research into Tim Londregan’s activities over the summer of 2019.

The Zoning Board of Appeals decided Monday, after closing the public hearing, it would take time to review everything placed in the record before coming to a decision on whether to uphold or dismiss the cease-and-desist order. A date for that decision has not yet been set.

m.biekert@theday.com

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