Rilling rebuffs Island Belle owner, new dock fees pass

Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling looks at Island Belle operator Ken Hart Tuesday in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. – Rumors of a reconciliation between Norwalk and the company running a Mississippi river-style paddleboat appear to have been exaggerated.

Ken Hart of Sound Charter Group, which operates the Island Belle, appeared in front of the Common Council on Tuesday night. Mayor Harry Rilling promptly shooed him, saying that there was nothing on the agenda that would allow him to run through his list of reasons the Island Belle should be welcome in Norwalk Harbor.

Diane Cece eventually intervened, pointing out that there was indeed an item on the agenda – the docking fees for commercial vessels at Veterans Park. Hart returned, and resumed saying what a boon the Island Belle was to Norwalk before all those other things happened, but Rilling reined him in, telling him to stick to the issue (dock fees), given that there is litigation pending.

Litigation? Wasn’t that supposed to be imminently resolved?

Let’s backtrack. The Island Belle had been docked at the Veteran’s Park visitor’s dock. The boat left Norwalk shortly after Superstorm Sandy and an incident in which the visitor’s dock wound up stretched across the Norwalk River. The city subsequently filed a lawsuit against Sound Charter Group in, of all things, housing court, alleging that Hart’s company had not paid the city fees that had been agreed to and had ignored orders to get the boat away from the dock.

Sound Charter Group filed a countersuit saying that the city was responsible for the damage to the dock. Hart also alleged that city officials had said untrue things about him and his company, causing him damage.

In late January, Hart’s lawyer, Albert Strazza, said the case was 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.

It’s been quiet, except that Hart has been pitching his case to the Recreation, Parks and Cultural Affairs Committee as it considered the fee issue.

Hart signed up for the public speaking session at Tuesday’s council meeting. He began his speech by saying he was there to tie the Island Belle to the Recreation and Parks fees issue, and said that his boat is “very missed here.”

Rilling said he thought that wasn’t on the agenda. He looked through papers briefly, as did City Clerk Donna King. Not there. You can’t speak on something that isn’t on the agenda, Rilling said.

When all the people who had signed up to speak were done, 17 minutes later, Rilling asked if there was anyone else. Cece said she’d like to.

“Will you please state your name, Miss Cece?” Rilling joked as she arrived at the lectern.

Cece asked about the agenda item regarding fees. She said that if someone had left because he said it wasn’t on the agenda that she’d like the item to be tabled.

Rilling asked Hart to come back.

The mission of the Island Belle was to contribute to the city, to create new revenue streams and increase tourism, Hart said. The revenue to the city had been projected at $100,000 in its first year, he said.

“There were some things that went on that undermined what I thought was a wonderful and contributory program for the city and its residents,” he said. “Thankfully, I hoped everything was passed. I thought the timing couldn’t be better for a co-branding tourism-based partner that would bring the Island Belle’s programming back to Veterans Park in support of Norwalk’s tourism and cultural programs.”

Rilling said he had strayed from the agenda item.

“We understand there is litigation that is involved as well and I don’t think we are really able to discuss that at this particular point,” he said. “I also don’t think it’s appropriate that we have any testimony that might actually be engaged in that litigation so if you would just stick to the fee change. There is a fee of $3 a foot for commercial vessels. Just stick to that.”

Hart resumed his spiel, emphasizing the amount of money the Island Belle could bring to Norwalk and suggesting that the $3 fee could be reduced for the 130-foot boat when it is having smaller events. The parking fees could be bumped up in those instances, he said.

“We feel the Island Belle program still fits,” he said.

“Alright, well, thank you very much,” Rilling said.

Case closed for the evening. The fees were unanimously approved as part of the council’s consent calendar.


6 responses to “Rilling rebuffs Island Belle owner, new dock fees pass”

  1. EastNorwalkChick

    This Hart guy seems to have rather big brass ones, has he paid his back fees? Has he paid the damage done to the docks because he refused to move his monstrosity before one of the largest storms that we have seen in some time? As far as I’m concerned Norwalk should stay clear of this guy, him and his boat are nothing but an accident about to happen.

  2. Joe Espo

    Wow, where’s the outrage at the mayor’s bullying here? If it were Moccia shutting the guy down, there would be all manner of self-righteous caterwauling.

  3. Oldtimer

    A brief translation of Hart’s comments, for those who have not followed the history of the Island Belle in Norwalk.
    I am counting on the City of Norwalk to provide me a place to conduct my business in a city park, including parking for my customers, at a much cheaper price than I can possibly find anywhere else. I want this administration to ignore the fact that I do not pay my bills and I am currently suing, and being sued by, the City.

  4. John Frank sr

    $3 a foot for unrestricted commercial use ? Can they do that in a AAA residential zone ? Does that mean that any commercial vessel that chooses to pay the fee can stay at what was built as the “visitor’s dock” anytime, for as long as the captain chooses ? Could a competing party boat service use the dock, and the parking, too ? I don’t think that was what tax dollars were spent for when the park was established and the visitor’s dock was built. I understood the park property was restricted for recreational park use, only.
    There was a group that proposed building a small airport there years ago and they were stopped by restrictions on use of the property.

  5. Piberman

    What’s surprising here is that City attorney did not intervene to prevent an acknowledged litigant against the City from seeking special relief at a public Council meeting. Nor vigorously proceed to litigate. Visitor docks were set up for local boaters and occasional visitors. Certainly not a commercial marine tour business. Bridgeport awaits the Belle. Norwalk officials have been beyond patient here. And for some far too timid.

  6. John Frank sr

    Far too timid ? Greedy probably better describes how Mocciae and company looked at the Island Belle and the revenue anticipated, but apparently never paid, last year. For some mysterious reason, they seem to believe this year will be different, Hart will keep his promises, and the money will flow in steadily. They even seem to believe Hart will pay all he owes from last year, including the damages, from when he refused to move before the storm.

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