Owners of New London Harbor Lighthouse seek special permit
New London — The owner of New London Harbor Light, which has butted heads in the past with lighthouse neighbors and city land-use officials, has submitted a proposal to the city in hopes of regaining public access to the historic Pequot Avenue lighthouse.
The nonprofit New London Maritime Society filed an application with the Office of Planning and Development this week asking the Planning and Zoning Commission to amend zoning regulations and allow “Events and Tours for Historic Property Preservation” in a residential zone with approval of a special permit.
The disagreement over access led to a federal lawsuit by neighbors Donald and Bonita Waesche, who could not be reached for comment.
Maritime Society President George Sprecace said a conference with a federal judge led to a proposed settlement that has yet to be signed off on by the Waesches.
The terms of the settlement are confidential, Sprecace said.
The proposed amendment would allow the lighthouse, and conceivably any other similarly situated structure on the National Register of Historic Places, to host fundraising events and tours “to promote cultural and historic education and appreciation of New London’s heritage.”
Access to the lighthouse for the public was all but halted by a cease-and-desist order from the city last year that came on the heels of the federal lawsuit.
The city cited increased activity at the lighthouse in its order after the Waesches complained of the number of visitors, the scope of construction at the site and disputed the property line.
The Maritime Society, which obtained the lighthouse in 2009 under the National Lighthouse Protection Act, had been raising funds for restoration and conducting tours by appointment until the legal troubles started.
The maritime society, which operates the Custom House Maritime Museum on Bank Street, also owns the Race Rock Lighthouse and New London Ledge Light.
The society argues that part of its mandate by the federal government when it took ownership of the lighthouses is to maintain public access.
The group was unsuccessful in its request to the Zoning Board of Appeals to lift the cease-and-desist order at Harbor Light and has appealed the order to New London Superior Court.
Success with the Planning and Zoning Commission likely would make the appeal a moot point.
Under the proposed amendment, the Planning and Zoning Commission would have a say in the visitation schedule, number of visitors at any one time, hours of operation and include a description for the means by which visitors would gain access to the lighthouse.
The lighthouse sits on a sliver of land nestled between two residential properties.
The proposed amendment also addresses specifics of parking and use of signs and will be subject to a public hearing.
Because of statutory requirements, which include notification to neighbors, the proposal won't go before the Planning and Zoning Commission until its March 17 meeting at the earliest.
Sprecace said his hope and expectation is that the Planning and Zoning Commission will approach the proposal from a standpoint of “why not, rather than why.”
“We see this as an opportunity to safeguard New London Harbor Lighthouse and its access for the city in general,” Sprecace said. “We’re standing in the shoes of the public here. This is not about ourselves.”