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Seize chance to end the litigation and open Harbor Light in New London to visitors

October 10, 2018

Perhaps, finally, a path has opened that would again allow visitors to tour the New London Harbor Light on Pequot Avenue.

With the wisdom of Solomon, Superior Court Judge Kimberly Knox recently issued a ruling on a long-disputed Zoning Board of Appeals case that, according to news coverage, was “hailed as a win by both sides.”

The litigants are the New London Maritime Society and the New London ZBA.

Hopefully, with both sides taking something positive away from Knox’s ruling, the court fight can end without further appeals and the job of figuring out how to reopen the historic lighthouse to visitors can begin. If pursued to its logical end, the guidance provided by Knox should lead to the “small tour groups, at appropriate times and with practical limitations” that our editorial suggested as a reasonable resolution back in May 2016.

Alas, the parties ended up in court instead and two summer seasons were lost. But better late than never, as the saying goes.

Judge Knox’s ruling technically reverses a 2015 decision by the New London ZBA to uphold a cease-and-desist order issued by the zoning enforcement officer that has barred public tours of the lighthouse. Knox concluded that the ZEO’s order prohibiting any visits amounted to “an unlawful restriction on the plaintiff’s use of the lighthouse.”

That is because long before zoning regulations were adopted by the city in 1928 the lighthouse hosted public tours, though they were small and infrequent. Though they do not follow existing zoning rules in the residential neighborhood, such visits are a permitted nonconforming use because they predate the zoning regulations, the judge ruled.

At the same time, Knox found that the nonconforming exception only pertains to the small group visits seen in its history. The “large tour groups, open houses, school trips, and regular hours of operation” that the Maritime Society may have once envisioned for the 19th century structure would constitute a zoning violation and could be blocked by a cease and desist order.

Knox sent the case back to the ZBA to set the guidelines for the “small guided tours of the lighthouse upon request” that her order allows.

Compromise will be necessary to find a balance that meets the judge’s order without being so restrictive that it presents an unfair burden on the Maritime Society. An outcome that reasonably restricts access to the lighthouse is also less likely to generate opposition from neighbors, who have fought with the Maritime Society in the past. A property-line lawsuit was settled earlier this year when the society provided new access that no longer sends visitors along the disputed boundaries.

The New London Maritime Society deserves much credit for its effort to preserve some of our region’s most historically significant lighthouses. Built in 1761, 15 years before the nation declared its independence, the Harbor Light is the tallest and oldest lighthouse in the state and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The society acquired it in 2009 in accordance with the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, which provided for local preservationist groups to obtain lighthouses being divested by the federal government. NLMS has overseen extensive restoration work of Harbor Light’s exterior. In acquiring the Harbor Light, the society agreed to provide public access to it.

The maritime society obtained the Race Rock and Ledge Light lighthouses under the same federal law.

Its past handling of the disputes involving access to Harbor Light, also known as the Pequot Light, left much to be desired, however. Earlier opportunities to find compromise were rejected in favorof  a more confrontational and litigious approach.

Now there is an opportunity for the NLMS, the city and the neighbors to put all that behind them. The parties should seize this opportunity provided by Judge Knox’s ruling.

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