New London group competes for Old Saybrook’s Lynde Point Lighthouse
The Lynde Point Lighthouse is a beacon in the fight for public access now that the New London Maritime Society has set its sights on the historic structure sequestered in the tony enclave of Old Saybrook’s Fenwick borough.
Susan Tamulevich, maritime society director, said the preservation organization is committed to ensuring the public, which built and maintained the lighthouse, can visit going forward.
The lighthouse sits on a grassy expanse bordered by a decrepit seawall on one side and private driveways on the other. It’s being unloaded for free as part of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act because the U.S. Coast Guard no longer needs it.
The maritime society is waiting to hear whether its application to guide the 185-year-old lighthouse into the future is accepted by the National Parks Service. It’s in competition with the Borough of Fenwick, which with its taxing authority and flush rainy day fund is well suited to rehabilitate the property if not to welcome visitors with open arms.
Applications were due Nov. 30, according to U.S. General Services Administration spokesman Paul Hughes. He said there is no set timeline for how long the evaluation process takes or when the parks service will make a decision.
The federal lighthouse preservation program since its inception in 2000 has transferred 81 lighthouses at no cost and sold 70 in public auctions, generating about $10 million.
The maritime society already oversees three lighthouses: New London Harbor Light off Pequot Avenue, Ledge Light at the mouth of the harbor, and Race Rock Light Station southwest of Fishers Island.
Newton C. Brainard III, warden of the Borough of Fenwick, said the municipality will provide “some public access” if it is granted ownership of the Lynde Point Lighthouse.
Pressed for details, he said the plan for how the lighthouse would be made available are outlined in the borough’s application to the National Parks Service.
“We’ll have to wait until this process is complete, and then everybody can take a look at our application and see what we put in there for public access,” he said.
The parks service by press time had not fulfilled a request for copies of the applications.
Brainard emphasized some access would be better than what’s available now.
“Currently, today, there is zero public access,” he said. “That’s the baseline. There is no public access because one needs to travel over two pieces of private property to access the lighthouse by land.”
The Coast Guard will retain its easement to the property.
Brainard described public access as a “puzzle that any entity that becomes the owner has to solve.”
Tamulevich acknowledged initial reluctance to embark on an application because she knew it was a “tough neighborhood” in terms of accessibility.
But there are more ways to get to the lighthouse than from land, according to the longtime steward. When it comes to lighthouses, sometimes the water is the only way.
“We land at Race Rock. We land at Ledge Light twice a week in the summer. It’s not a challenge for us, because we know how to do it,” she said.
Tamulevich described the simple ladder attached to the base of Race Rock Lighthouse to which boats can pull up.
“You just sort of hop off onto the ladder,” she said. “People kind of like it. It’s an adventure.”
Tamulevich acknowledged that securing funding to repair the seawall so a boat can land there could be a lengthy process. In the meantime, the only access might take the form of a harbor camera looking out from the top of the lighthouse. She likened the setup to the one at the society’s Custom House Maritime Museum in New London.
“It takes some time to figure out the specific site and what’s doable, and also to establish a good relationship with the neighbors, if that’s possible,” she said.
The society in 2018 reached a settlement with one of the neighbors of Harbor Light to end a long-running federal lawsuit over a property line dispute. There were other lawsuits involving more neighbors and the city Zoning Board of Appeals that were dismissed.
Bart Gullong, who grew up in Old Saybrook and was a resident until he moved to Waterford two years ago, is an advocate for unfettered access beaches and lighthouses. He recalled a cloistered atmosphere in Fenwick going back 65 years to when his parents would take him on car rides along the shoreline.
“I will never forget that I asked to drive into Fenwick one day and my mother said, ‘Oh, we’re not allowed to go in there. Only the rich people live there,’” he recounted.
He said signs through the years have identified the roads as private despite being built and maintained by taxpayer funds.
In 2011, a memorandum of understanding between the borough warden and first selectman of Old Saybrook specified all active local roads are public except an unspecified portion of Sequassen Avenue and two small roadways known as Wilson and Freeman avenues.
Passes to use the beach or tennis courts in the borough cost $50 per day for non-residents. There is no parking within the borough.
“They’re exclusionists, that’s the bottom line,” he said.
Gullong threw his support behind the maritime society for its experience controlling lighthouses.
“They understand it’s an iconic symbol,” he said. “It’s not just an iconic symbol of Old Saybrook; it’s an iconic symbol of the Connecticut River and therefore the entire state.”
Tamulevich said acquiring the Lynde Point Lighthouse would expand westward the organization’s focus on New London and the Long Island Sound.
“The Connecticut River is a very big part of the story of our state,” she said. “So for us it’s a natural growth of what we’re already doing.”
Tamulevich described building relationships with people and individuals west of the River – including the Connecticut River Gateway Commission, Save the Sound and the Connecticut River Museum – as a new experience for the insular organization.
“Whatever happens, we’ve had quite a wonderful experience getting to know the people along the waterfront further to the west,” she said.
That extends to the people of Fenwick, according to the maritime society director.
“The warden and I have promised to support each other,” she said. “If they win, we’ll help them. If we win, they’ll help us. And really, that’s absolutely the truth. They’re very nice people. And we’ll just see.”
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