NORWALK, Conn. – Don’t expect Island Belle operator Ken Hart to get a friendly reception if he decides again to approach Common Council members about once again making Norwalk his base of operations.
The Mississippi-style river boat remains docked at O&G Industries on South Smith Street, where it has been since late January, although it was recently asked to leave, according to emails obtained by NancyOnNorwalk. Its arrival here followed a 1½-year long exile, which came after the Veteran’s Park Visitor’s Dock was destroyed while the city attempted to move the Island Belle as Superstorm Sandy came crashing in. During that time, the city and Hart have been fighting a legal battle in Housing Court over the damages, with no resolution as yet.
A concerned reader asked Wednesday what is up with the boat? He wanted to know: How could the city allow it to dock at the Visitor’s Dock when a lawsuit is pending?
There is no plan as yet to allow the Island Belle to use the dock, although the Recreation and Parks Department recently obtained a permit for commercial usage of the dock from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, according to Recreation, Parks and Cultural Affairs Committee Chairman Jerry Petrini (R-District D).
“We have never been in any conversations other than when (Hart) showed up at the committee. I was just as surprised as anybody else,” Petrini said, referring to a hearing about park fees.
Hart also appeared at the council meeting on the topic, getting an unfriendly reaction from Mayor Harry Rilling. Hart said he hoped the city would allow the Island Belle to resume business in the city, perhaps encouraging the business by reducing the docking fee when the boat isn’t full. The city set a rate of $3 per foot for a commercial vessel to use the dock.
Petrini said Wednesday that, in spite of the ongoing litigation, he doesn’t think the city could refuse Hart the usage of the dock if he meets the standards of the permit.
But, “He’s got to pay that $3 per foot like anybody else,” Petrini said. “His customers have to pay for parking if they don’t have a sticker. That is just to load and unload; he cannot stay there overnight or any extended period. Just like everybody else.”
Complaints have been filed with the Coast Guard and DEEP about the Island Belle sitting on the bottom at low tide in it current location. Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound Investigations Division Chief Dawn Kallen has not returned phone calls asking about the situation. DEEP also did not respond to an email about the situation.
Shellfish Commission Chairman Pete Johnson, who filed the complaint, said he hadn’t heard anything.
The sternwheeler is blocking barge traffic, emails obtained by NancyOnNorwalk last month say. Johnson said the only thing he knew was that, about two weeks ago, there were “two letters from tugboat captains saying they want it out of there.”
Harbor Master Michael Griffin did not return a phone call requesting comment.
Petrini said it’s not likely the Island Belle would be allowed to dock at the Visitor’s Dock permanently, as it was before Superstorm Sandy.
“Nothing will be (discussed) until I get some advice from legal that this thing (the suit) has been settled. I’m not about to talk to him when there is litigation. When that happens, if he comes here and asks for the berth there, my vote is no and I would believe the rest of the committee would vote that way, too,” he said.
No one has talked to Hart, he said.
“No one on our committee gave him permission for anything,” he said. “I’d be surprised if that changed because I don’t think anybody on my committee feels that we want him back there. There’s not too many people in the city that do.”