Correction Feb. 1, 2014: The ship’s tonnage was incorrect in the original version. The Island Belle is registered at 97 gross register tons.
NORWALK, Conn. – A Westport man whose company is being sued by Norwalk has, in return, accused city officials of negligence, carelessness, intentional infliction of emotional distress, violation of civil rights and violation of maritime law.
Still, in spite of it all, the man who operates the Island Belle wants to bring his business back to Norwalk’s waterfront.
Norwalk seeks $15,000 plus interest and costs in the lawsuit filed Aug. 13 against Ken Hart of Sound Charter Group LLC, the company that operates the Island Belle, a Mississippi-style river boat that drifted across the Norwalk River on Oct. 29, 2012, as Superstorm Sandy approached, with pieces of the Veterans Park visitors dock trailing along behind it.
Hart’s lawyer, Albert Strazza, said the case is very close to a resolution.
“We have open lines of communication with the requisite city officials and we are currently working towards an amicable resolution,” he said in an email.
The city’s lawsuit, filed in Norwalk Housing Court, says that when the dock was destroyed, Hart had not paid the city its fees since May 1. The harbor master had ordered Hart to remove the boat from the visitors dock as the storm approached, but Hart did not comply, the suit says.
Norwalk firefighters, Wilton Fire Department divers and Norwalk Police were on hand the afternoon of Oct. 29 as a Nat’s Garage tow truck tried to maneuver the boat to the east-facing wing of the dock, parallel to the Stroffolino Bridge, to lower its profile to the wind. A cable snapped and the 97-gross register ton, three-story tall boat was free. Rather than being pushed by the wind toward the bridge, it headed across the river, where it was secured to an old mooring in a resolution described by Deputy Fire Chief Ed Prescott as “miraculous.”
In addition to the destruction of the dock, the lawsuit says that pilings were pulled from the river floor, electrical equipment and a pump station were destroyed. Hart has not paid for the damage, the lawsuit says.
But Hart says the city is responsible. Hart was ordered to cut the boat loose at his protest, the Nov. 25, 2013 response to the lawsuit says. First responders at the helm did not have maritime training and did not have knowledge of the boat, it says.
When Harbor Master Mike Griffin ordered Hart to remove the boat Oct. 26, 2012, it was too late, the lawsuit response says – no harbor would take such a large vessel as the storm approached.
It is illegal to order a boat to leave a dock when a storm is approaching, the lawsuit response says. The dock owner may be held liable, the response says.
“The action of the city of cutting the Island Belle loose from the visitors dock during Sandy constitutes a manifest and reckless disregard for the health and safety of Sound Charter Group, Hart, the Island Belle and its crew as well as the health and safety of the public,” the response says.
Hart’s accusation of negligence and incompetence goes all the way back to the signing of the licensing agreement between the two parties on Sept. 22, 2011, spelling out terms of $2,000 a month for the dock, $500 a month for utilities and an additional fee of $500 per event.
The city did not get permission from its own Harbor Management Commission (NHMC), NPPD (Homeland Security), the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), the response says.
“The defendant acting in good faith actually detrimentally relied on the plaintiff representations and promises made pursuant to the terms of the licensing agreement,” the response says. “… To require the defendant to pay for fees made in the licensing agreement would be unfair because the defendant did not get the benefit of the program and the plaintiff would be unjustly enriched.”
Hart could not use the dock through the winter as expected, the response says.
On Nov. 11, 2011, Hart arrived at the dock to find the electricity was off, the response says.
“Norwalk Parks and Rec department failed to realize that all town parks’ services are terminated annually on November 1,” the response says. “No provision was in place that could support services to the visitors dock from Nov. 1 to April 15. There was no provision for snow removal. … The electricity was eventually turned on but no other services were provided. This is a breach of the licensing agreement but Hart continued to pay rent. SCG was harmed by the city’s breach.”
Hart had projected 80 to 120 events during his first year at the dock, the papers say. At that point, there had been 60 events, well ahead of the projection. But Hart could not operate without the support services, and he had been ordered to move the boat to the east-facing dock, into shallow waters, the papers say.
On March 12, 2012, Hart and Parks and Recreation Director Mike Mocciae renegotiated the agreement, the papers say. The monthly docking fee and the utility fees were waived until the problems were resolved. Event fees were reduced. Mocciae asked for a letter of commitment to renew the agreement in December.
On May 2, 2012, Hart met with then-Business and Marketing Director Tad Diesel and Corporation Counsel Bob Maslan, the papers say.
“It appeared to Hart there were numerous unresolved internal agency issues, misunderstandings., jurisdictional issues and political posturing within the city, the Norwalk Harbor management commission, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. He was assured that the Island Belle was to be a permanent fixture in South Norwalk,” the papers say.
On Sept. 5, Mocciae ordered Hart to remove the boat by Sept. 7, the papers say.
Hart wrote back on Sept. 20 that he was looking for another location, but needed more time. On Oct. 19 he was given permission to leave within the first few weeks of November, the papers say.
Hart had planned to ride out the storm with the engines running, a tactic that worked during Hurricane Irene, the papers say. But the city cut the ropes, setting the boat adrift.
Although the response offers no evidence to back it up, Hart claims he did pay the fees. But if he hadn’t, the city should have seized and auctioned the vessel, the response said.
The real reason the city wanted the boat out of there was that the USACE would not begin dredging until it was gone, the papers say.
In a counter claim, Hart’s SCG accuses former Mayor Richard Moccia of “negative and untrue statements concerning Sound Charter Group in print and on television, contributing to SCG’s inability to secure a new licensing agreement outside of Norwalk.” NHMC Chairman Tony D’Andrea acted improperly to “disseminate negative and false statements causing political pressure,” the papers say.
“The city’s behavior, through its agents, was intended and did frighten, harass and intimidate Hart and crew,” the papers say. “… the city selectively treated Sound Charter Group in a matter that was unfair, arbitrary and in violation of its rights.”
“The entire ordeal has almost bankrupted my client both professionally and personally,” Strazza writes in the document.
The last action in the lawsuit was filed in December. Assistant Corporation Counsel Carrie Colangelo was granted an extension to Jan. 9.
Nothing further will happen on its own, a Housing Court clerk said.
“Somebody needs to make a motion to do something or file a default or something,” she said.
City officials declined to comment.
“What happened to my client and his crew during the storm (and in the aftermath) was a horrible and unfortunate event,” Strazza wrote in an email. “However my client harbors no malice towards the city or the prior administration and holds a deep and true love for Norwalk; for its past and its future. Ken is a local who is working tirelessly to bring a thriving business to Norwalk.”