NORWALK, Conn. – Don’t expect anything as large as the Port Jefferson ferry to be docking in Norwalk next summer, even if a commercial use permit has been authorized by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).
DEEP has specified in its Certificate of Permission that a boat no longer than 120 feet and wider than about 36 feet wide would be allowed at the Veterans Park visitor’s dock, but the Norwalk Harbor Management Commission (NHMC) is requesting that a professional engineer survey the dock to make sure its capacity is not exceeded by that permission, so as to prevent damage to the dock or the hindering the enjoyment of recreational boaters.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is expected to weigh in within a few days with an approval of the proposal to use the docks for commercial purposes, Parks and Recreation Department Director Mike Mocciae said.
This all stems from the mooring of a 130-foot-long Mississippi River-style paddle boat at the dock for more than two years, an arrangement that ended when the dock’s pilings were pulled up during Superstorm Sandy, and the dock’s floats were scattered across the harbor. Ken Hart, owner of Sound Charter Group — the company running the Island Belle — said Monday that his boat did not break the dock. A piling shown in a photograph leaning at a sharp angle had been hit by a barge two months before the storm, he said.
In October 2012, USACE sent Norwalk a letter, notifying the city that it was in violation of its permit, because commercial use was not authorized. The city then began working on an application to allow commercial use at the dock. The application was submitted about 90 days ago.
Mocciae said at Monday’s NHMC meeting that recreational use of the dock by non-Norwalk residents is down, though usage by Norwalkers is up. About four years ago, Norwalk got $150,000 in revenue from the dock, but last year it was $85,000.
The dock’s floats were set loose but were not damaged in Sandy, he said. The pilings were, though. The dock is good for another six to seven years, but he hopes to have money to redesign it in two years, he said. That would be done in accordance to the market, he said.
Commercial use of the dock was approved by the Common Council in 1997, he said.
“We have never had any letters from the public stating any overuse, any vessels that could not get to the docks,” he said. “I think (a redesign is) going to be dictated over the next years by the economy, which way we are going to go with this.”
The north dock is going back to the location it was in before the recent dredging — 37.4 feet from the federal channel, Coastal Area Planning Consultant Geoff Steadman said. The south dock will be moved back 10 feet to make the face 29 feet back from the federal channel. That was a USACE requirement.
Commercial vessels will be restricted to the outside of the dock, per the Certificate of Permission. They will not be moored at the dock indefinitely, as the Island Belle was. The certificate specifically says that a boat will not be allowed to sit on the bottom.
Uses of the dock have to be consistent with the Harbor Management Plan, Steadman said.
Mocciae attended the NHMC Application Review Committee meeting, which preceded the meeting of the entire commission. That was where the recommendation that an engineer be hired was developed. That survey would be used to assist the Parks and Recreation Committee to work with NHMC to develop detailed policy about the types and sizes of boats that could use the dock.
Committee Chairman Tony D’Andrea said he didn’t want the increased presence of commercial vessels to inhibit recreational boaters, that the dock is an important way to bring visitors to South Norwalk and the Maritime Aquarium.
D’Andrea’s committee meeting featured just a few testy words.
Mocciae asked if he was going to be required to get an engineer every year. “We’ve never had any issues with either of the docks,” Mocciae said.
“We had a issue with this dock. It disappeared,” D’Andrea said. “Let’s not rewrite history.”
“Yes, of course. But we’re not going to have a 120-foot boat there for any period of time,” Mocciae said.
As the committee was talking about hiring an engineer to look at the proposal, Mocciae commented about the amount of money that would cost. “But we’ll take care of it,” he said.
“Safety has a cost,” D’Andrea said.
“It does, because hey, Tone, I get $20,000 to take down dead trees in the city,” Mocciae said. “You know how many dead trees there are? Hundreds of thousands of dollars. So it’s a city cost.”
Commissioners agreed that the recommendations were a “moot point” in some respects because the certificate had already be approved. They said they hoped USACE would take them into consideration and that they wanted them on the record.
They said they had missed their chance to weigh in partially because of last week’s snow storm, which forced the cancellation of a meeting.
The commission voted unanimously to make the recommendations.
Mocciae said at the committee meeting that the Common Council would be happy to develop a policy. He indicated he would hire an engineer to do the survey.
“It’s a big step forward for the city,” Commissioner John Pinto said.
“I think it’s very positive that there is going to be a landing facility for commercial vessels,” D’Andrea said. “It’s going to add a new dynamic as long as it is carefully done.”