NORWALK, Conn. – A riverboat that caused controversy in Norwalk is again the source of consternation, as Norwalk’s harbor keepers say it is grounded at low tide in its new location on the Norwalk River.
Norwalk Shellfish Commission Chairman Pete Johnson said the Island Belle, a 130-foot long Mississippi river-style boat that left Norwalk after the destruction of the Veteran’s Park visitor’s dock as Superstorm Sandy rolled in, is posing an environmental risk in its new location, moored at O&G Industries in the upper harbor.
“Excuse the expression, but you’re looking at a disaster,” Johnson said at Monday’s Harbor Management Commission meeting. “If it goes up and down, up and down and starts wearing a hole in one side, and let’s say it’s a fuel tank, what have we got then?”
Johnson said he was going to call an emergency meeting of the Shellfish Committee next week. A source said it is now planned for Thursday, although it isn’t yet posted on the city’s website.
There are “dirt and rocks and everything else” on the riverbed at O&G, Johnson said. Yes, barges are sometimes grounded up there, but they “don’t have oil, septic tanks, any of that,” he said.
The Island Belle, operated by Westport resident Ken Hart through Sound Charter Group LLC, was moored at the Veterans Park visitors dock for more than a year, during which time harbor keepers made a stink. No one had consulted the Harbor Management Commission, then-chairman Tony D’Andrea said in 2012, when Parks and Recreation and the Common Council agreed to a lease. This was odd, because the dock is in a Triple A zone, he said, for residential use. It was in the federal navigation channel, D’Andrea said – the dock was 21 feet from the channel and the boat is 34 feet wide, he said.
The Island Belle was on the bottom, damaging oyster beds, Johnson said.
Hart was ordered out before the storm, after the Army Corps of Engineers sent Norwalk a letter saying the city was in violation of its permit for the dock. But Hart said he needed more time to find a new berth.
Norwalk first responders tried to reposition the Island Belle as the storm rolled in, with help from a heavy duty Nat’s Garage tow truck, but a cable snapped. The Island Belle blew across the river, with pieces of the dock trailing behind it, the dock’s pilings’ destroyed in the process.
A lawsuit over the matter is still pending. City officials decline to comment. Hart claims the boat was cut loose over his protest.
The Island Belle left Norwalk after Sandy and went to Bridgeport. It later went to Broadway Marina in Stratford. Marina owner Scott “Tuna” Mitchell said Thursday that Hart was not in compliance with the lease he had there before leaving in the middle of the night recently. He refused to comment further, citing “pending litigation.” The lawsuit is not filed yet, he said. He did not say who was suing who.
The Island Belle arrived in Norwalk just over two weeks ago, cruising in at about 11 p.m., Johnson said at the commission meeting.
Harbor Management members said getting a boat that large into the upper harbor isn’t easy – you have to make an appointment to get the railroad bridge to go up.
Johnson said it is against the law to have a boat sitting on the bottom.
O&G Facilities Administrator Richard Warren said Thursday that he “didn’t know about any grounding situation.” He said he would look into it.
Hart said the same old crew is out to get him.
“Is the attack on us starting all over again?” he asked in an Wednesday email. “I’m really not bothered by their attempts to create controversy. I don’t think the story you should be interested in at this point is me. I think the real story is ‘why me.’ What is the real story behind these few individuals’ constant attacks on this program. That’s a story I bet your readers would appreciate.”
Johnson said he has filed a complaint with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). DEEP did not return a request for information Thursday afternoon.
Johnson expressed frustration at Monday’s meeting. Calling the harbor master wouldn’t do any good, as he can’t issue a ticket, he said.
“He (Hart) either gets fined or gets it so it’s not sitting on the bottom,” Johnson said.
Norwalk Police marine officer Mike Silva said he didn’t think he could help. “The Coast Guard wields a bigger sword than we do,” he said.
Coastal Area Planning Consultant Geoff Steadman agreed it might be illegal, saying, “It is our policy when reviewing applications that no dock or vessel attached to them should sit on the bottom. I don’t know what the Coast Guard regulations are for having a passenger vessel sitting on the bottom.”
“When you talk about sitting on the bottom, I think DEEP can hit you harder than anybody else can,” Silva said. “The Coast Guard will come down and crawl inside and out, they’ll levy some fines but … I mean, if we have something documented that it’s not supposed to be happening, the DEEP will come down.”