Stonington — After four years and four revisions, and despite repeated opposition from some neighbors, the borough Planning and Zoning Commission on Tuesday night unanimously approved a proposal by the Stonington Historical Society to construct a 500-square-foot addition to the Old Lighthouse Museum.
This was the society’s fourth attempt to renovate and slightly expand the size of the museum. Neighbors have opposed all the previous plans, including two larger designs in 2013 and 2015, and one last summer. Residents repeatedly have criticized the size of and rationale for the addition, landscaping, additional traffic and the society’s holding of special events such as weddings on the scenic waterfront property adjacent to Stonington Point.
In December, the commission approved its own zoning amendment that allows it to grant a special-use permit to nonconforming uses that serve the public, such as the museum, restaurants and shops in all zoning districts, to expand for the purpose of complying with public health and safety standards, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. The lighthouse is a nonconforming use; the amendment paved the way for the society’s new application.
The addition, which will operate as the new entrance, now will accommodate a handicapped-accessible bathroom and ticket counter that could be accessed by visitors, volunteers or employees using a wheelchair. The existing ticket counter in the front of the museum cannot be accessed by wheelchair. Moving the ticket area also would open up space for exhibits and the walkway will allow wheelchairs to access the museum.
The society has agreed not to expand the number of its events.
During the commission’s public hearing Tuesday night, in which more than 75 people packed Borough Hall, society President Michael Schefers outlined the handicapped improvements and said they were not being done to expand the scope of special events.
“Please do what is responsible and right for people with disabilities,” he told the commission.
“Let us put this unpleasant chapter behind us” and unite as one community, added resident Joyce Pandolfi.
But neighbor Betty Richards, a former Planning and Zoning Commission chairwoman, said she had “great concerns” about the appropriateness of the project. She urged the society to maintain the existing front entrance so visitors could have the same experience of the lighthouse keepers as they entered the building and climbed the staircase to the light. She also criticized the loss of some of the lawn which extends out to Little Narragansett Bay to make way for the walkway.
“Let the grounds stay the way they are,” she said.
In celebration of the project’s approval, the museum announced Thursday that it will offer free admission for all Stonington residents from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, May 20. Renderings of the proposed addition and landscaping changes will be on display and staff will be on hand to answer any questions members of the public may have about the project, historical society Executive Director Elizabeth Wood announced in a news release.