Opinion: Jonathan Lovejoy and the Norwalk Harbor Management Plan

NORWALK, Conn. – In March of this year, representatives of the Norwalk Harbor Management Commission traveled to the New England Headquarters of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Concord, Mass. The purpose of the trip, on behalf of the Commission, Mayor Harry Rilling and the Common Council, was to express the city’s appreciation of the Corps’ exceptional work to complete the Norwalk Harbor dredging project – a project that took years to plan and complete but should keep the harbor’s navigation channels in good shape for the next 20 years.

We addressed an auditorium full of Corps officials and reaffirmed the Commission’s commitment to oversee Norwalk Harbor in the public interest, fairly, and in compliance with the city’s Harbor Management Plan and laws and regulations that apply equally to everyone. By doing so, the Commission will be upholding the standard established 30 years ago by the Commission’s first chairman, Jonathan Lovejoy.

Jon was a public servant who contributed to his community, made it better, and set an example for everyone who would hope to do the same thing. He passed away April 4 in Essex. He was 82.

A memorial service will be held on May 9 in Westbrook.

While he had many accomplishments, I am most familiar with his work as the principal architect of the Norwalk Harbor Management Plan, and wish to reflect on his work here.

The history of the Harbor Management Plan can be traced back to the last time the harbor was dredged. The Corps was already concerned about the number of docks, bulkheads and other structures being built illegally in Connecticut waterways. When they arrived in Norwalk Harbor to dredge accumulated sediment out of the East Norwalk Basin in 1980, they found docks and bulkheads extending into the federal navigation channel. If the problem was not corrected, the Corps warned the city, the U.S. Attorney would take enforcement actions against the offending waterfront property owners, the federal government would not dredge the harbor again, and the city would be on its own if it wanted to maintain the navigation channel. The good reason for the Corps’ warning is that federal channels and anchorage basins are authorized by Acts of Congress and dredged with federal tax dollars. They are “water highways.” Allowing an encroachment into a federal channel would be like letting someone build a private garage on I-95.

The Corps of Engineers believed, and rightfully so, that if Connecticut towns had more authority over coastal waters, they could better manage their harbors in the public interest and prevent illegal work in the waterways. Jon agreed and volunteered to serve on a city committee to consider issues concerning public safety, environmental conservation, and recreational and commercial use of Norwalk Harbor.

As a result of these sorts of discussions in Norwalk and other towns, the state Legislature in 1984 passed the Connecticut Harbor Management Act giving towns with navigable waterways the authority to establish municipal harbor management commissions and prepare harbor management plans. The harbor management commission would be similar to a planning and zoning commission; the harbor management plan would be the equivalent of a town master plan. Norwalk officials testified in support of the Harbor Management Act when it was introduced by Sen. George “Doc” Gunther from Stratford who said the intent of the law was “to get the state bureaucracy in Hartford the [heck] out of our business.” Gunther, a remarkable character in his own right and the longest-serving state legislator in Connecticut history, was never timid about expressing his opinions.

A few months after the Harbor Management Act became law, the Norwalk Common Council adopted the city ordinance establishing the Norwalk Harbor Management Commission. The ordinance directed the Commission to prepare the city’s Harbor Management Plan. The plan would define Norwalk’s goals and policies for use and conservation of the harbor and set up the procedures for achieving them. Jon was appointed by Mayor Bill Collins to the Commission and later reappointed by Mayor Frank Esposito.

Jon’s leadership was crucial for preparing the Harbor Management Plan. This was a difficult process requiring lengthy discussions at every Commission meeting from 1984 to 1990. There were many special meetings too, including public hearings where numerous issues, conflicts, and points of view were addressed, not the least of which were the aforementioned illegal encroachments in the East Norwalk Basin and elsewhere in the harbor. There was little experience to draw from. Back then, the only other towns working on harbor management plans were Milford and Essex. Today, harbor management is a basic part of local government along the entire Connecticut coast.

Part of Jon’s vision for Norwalk Harbor was that the city – not the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (now the DEEP) or the Corps of Engineers – would have the principal responsibility for managing the harbor. The Corps has always been supportive of this vision; the DEEP sometimes less so.

Jon understood that the intent of the state Harbor Management Act is to empower coastal towns. Among other things, the Act says that recommendations of a harbor management commission based on an approved harbor management plan are to be binding on any state official making a decision affecting the harbor. At times this leads to conflicting opinions and the DEEP must be reminded of what the law says. But the Norwalk Harbor Management Plan has undoubtedly achieved its main purpose which is to strengthen the city’s authority, relative to state and federal agencies, in the harbor. And the plan did not, as some critics initially predicted, take authority away from the city’s planning and zoning commissions. Proposals affecting the harbor submitted to the planning and zoning commissions must be provided to the Harbor Management Commission for review and comments but only with respect to a proposal’s impacts on the harbor. Today, the Harbor Management Plan and Norwalk Plan of Conservation and Development are complementary documents that intersect on the waterfront and together serve as the city’s principal guides for use and conservation of Norwalk’s land and water resources.

At the heart of the Harbor Management Plan is the easy-to-say but sometimes difficult-to-achieve concept of balance. Jon recognized the need for a sustainable balance between beneficial use of the harbor and waterfront on the one hand and conservation of the harbor’s environmental quality, including water quality, on the other. The plan also calls for balance between public and private rights in the harbor. Norwalk Harbor and all of the state’s tidewaters and submerged lands cannot be privately owned – they are held in trust by the state for the benefit of the general public. This is according to the body of law known as the Public Trust Doctrine that goes back to American independence. While the public rights of navigation, recreation, and fishing are paramount, the owners of waterfront property have important rights of access to the harbor. Jon understood all of these issues and recognized that the plan could provide a guide for informed and thoughtful decisions by the Harbor Management Commission in response to future problems and conflicts.

The Harbor Management Commission figured out a way (eventually implemented through two Acts of Congress) to eliminate the illegal encroachments identified by the Corps of Engineers. Also, the Harbor Management Plan made it clear that the city’s policy is to manage the harbor’s federal channels and anchorage basins so they will be “open to all on equal terms.” If the Commission had not done this, the Corps would never have started the recently completed harbor dredging project and the U.S. Congress would not have provided over $12 million for the project.

As chairman of the Harbor Management Commission, Jon’s wise and calm leadership was needed to get the Harbor Management Plan adopted by the Common Council and approved by the State of Connecticut in 1990. In addition to his understanding of the issues and his ability to work well with people – a quality often more important for this work than being able to recite laws and regulations – Jon’s respected stature in the community was essential to the Commission’s success in completing the plan.

Jon’s grandfather, Capt. Frederick Lovejoy, was one of the principal figures in the history of shellfishing in Connecticut and Norwalk Harbor. His oyster grounds extended from Darien to Westport; his oyster house in East Norwalk still stands and is now the office of the Long Island Soundkeeper. Capt. Lovejoy sued the city in 1929 over a basic harbor management issue, then and now – water pollution. He argued that his oystering business had been ruined by pollution from the Seaview Avenue dump. After the law suit, the dump was closed (it would become Duffy’s Field and is now Veterans Park) and the city agreed to build a sewage treatment plant. Perhaps this helps explain Jon’s keen awareness of the importance of achieving and maintaining the highest quality of water in Norwalk Harbor.

Fred Lovejoy Jr., Jon’s father, established a law firm in Norwalk in 1926. Jon later became a partner in that firm which still bears the family name on East Avenue. Jon stepped down as chairman of the Harbor Management Commission in 1991. He moved to Westbrook, where he became chairman of that town’s harbor management commission. He is probably the only person to serve as chairman of two different harbor management commissions in the state.

Jon never sought personal accolades for his role on the Harbor Management Commission. He worked to advance the public interest, not his own, and always gave credit to the hard-working members of the Commission. In 2009, the Commission surprised Jon by presenting him with the David S. Dunavan Norwalk Harbor Stewardship Award. The award honors an individual or organization demonstrating exceptional effort and accomplishment for protecting Norwalk’s harbor, river, and watershed. It was a well-deserved tribute for a true steward of the harbor.

One way to think about environmental stewardship is that it occurs when a person gives even more to the future than to the present. That would describe Jon’s contributions to Norwalk Harbor as Chairman of the Harbor Management Commission from 1984 to 1991.

Geoff Steadman is a coastal area planning consultant 


4 responses to “Opinion: Jonathan Lovejoy and the Norwalk Harbor Management Plan”

  1. John Frank sr

    Well said, Jeff. Jonathon was a very intelligent person with an unusually clear view of the future effects of what we do now. He went out of his way to avoid the spotlight, but his accomplishments on behalf of Norwalk Harbor stand as a lasting memorial.

  2. Mike Mushak

    Great letter. Thank you Geoff for writing it, and thanks to the Lovejoys who cared so much for protecting our beautiful harbor. ANC thanks to NON for publishing it.
    Currently on the Zoning. Commission we have folks who think the Harbor Management Plan is not important and can be routinely ignored. I am not one of them. Many of the recommendations of the plan are not followed by staff or the current commission leadership when reviewing applications, as became apparent a few years ago when there was a huge impact of an oversize dock with floodlights and a year round boat lift on an entire neighborhood, whose sunset view and the view of a natural shoreline was permanently altered. I understood the right of the property owner for access, but the HMP’s recommendation that the P and Z department encourage shared docks for neighborhoods to discourage the negative impact of overbuilding, was simply ignored, and I was told I had no respect for property rights which is not true.
    I grew up in NJ and saw what happened to Barnegat Bay over my lifetime with thousands of private docks lined up cheek by jowl, destroying the views and property values for many waterfront properties and obliterating the natural shoreline. This got so bad NJ put a moratorium on new docks for decades, and it is still next to impossible to put in a new dock in many areas, but the damage was done. Our HMP attempts to avoid this outcome, but it is only effective if it is respected and followed by P and Z staff as well as our current Harbor Management Commission. Kudos to those like tbd Lovejoys who understand how precious this resource is, and how quickly it can be ruined with just a few years of cumulative bad decisions.

  3. Jilayne Lovejoy

    Thank you so much for writing this, Geoff. It is a well-written and heart felt tribute to both my Dad and the Norwalk Harbor.

  4. Oyster

    This is a great letter. I hope P&Z proceeds more carefully in the future. I am wondering if there is regular coordination among all of the harbor commissions along the sound, or if that is left to SWRPA to manage?

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