New London lighthouse owners to seek zoning amendment as historic landmark

New London — With sights set on renewing public access to Harbor Light as quickly as possible, the New London Maritime Society is seeking to add a new historic landmark amendment to city zoning regulations.

The non-profit group, which owns the lighthouse off Pequot Avenue, is working out a plan that would allow the group to renew a limited number of small tours after first obtaining appropriate approvals from the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Those plans still are in the works, and Maritime Society Director Susan Tamulevich said they are keeping in close contact with the city’s Office of Development and Planning.

The proposal is the society’s answer to a cease-and-desist order issued by the city in June following complaints by abutting property owners about an increase in the number of visitors.

The order remains in place because of the society’s failed appeal to the Zoning Board of Appeals on Sept. 24. The society has since appealed the ZBA’s decision in a case pending in New London Superior Court.

Maritime Society President George Sprecace argues that visitors historically were allowed to visit the lighthouse when it was owned by the federal government and maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard. The group acquired the lighthouse in 2009.

The zoning enforcement officer had suggested the society apply for a special use permit as a museum because of the increase in number of visitors. The maritime society has rejected that designation since there is no commercial aspect to the lighthouse, Sprecace said.

The court appeal is in part based on grounds the zoning board of appeals failed to review the more than 90 items of evidence submitted by the society and declined to continue the public hearing to do so.

Sprecace said he does not intend to press the court appeal while they work with the city on a more amicable solution.

“We are working with the administration regarding what appropriate site plan and use plan can be brought before the Planning and Zoning Commission and hopefully approved,” Sprecace said. “We have every reason to believe what we are presenting will be given a green light.”

The maritime society has already worked in conjunction with the fire marshal and building official to address code requirements such as lighting and hand rails.

If the new text amendment is approved, the Planning and Zoning Commission can sanction things like hours of operations and the number of visitors at any one time.

Tammy Daugherty, director of the Office of Development and Planning, said in a Nov. 16 letter to Maritime Society attorney John Casey that, as they move forward with the permitting process, whichever route the society takes, it would be a great benefit to “have discussions and come to agreements with their direct abutters as to their plans for activities and events at the lighthouse.”

Donald and Bonita Waesche, who own 800 Pequot Ave. on land abutting the lighthouse to the north, filed a federal lawsuit because of a property line dispute. The Waesches' pending lawsuit also alleges that activity has increased and work, including construction of a walkway and retaining wall, was completed without permits.

A mediation session before a federal judge is scheduled for Dec. 10 in New Haven. Sprecace said the society, which denies any of the allegations, will make another settlement offer.

Sprecace said he is more than hopeful about reopening public access.

"We feel we are required to do that as stewards of the property on behalf of the public,” Sprecace said. “That's our commitment.”

Tamulevich said a year of struggles and litigation and denial of access for visitors has taken its toll on the society, but she remains optimistic.

“We missed an opportunity for the greatest season ever. Maybe we should have been more careful, but we’re trying to be as straightforward and clear with the neighbors every step of the way,” Tamulevich said.

“I do think the city is looking forward to a future where these shared icons are something that are accessible and something everybody can be proud of."

Abutting property owners of the lighthouse were not immediately available to comment.

g.smith@theday.com

Twitter: @SmittyDay

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