New London — The city’s commercial fishing fleet has secured a lease to continue its operations on the Fort Trumbull peninsula and opened the door to future expansion.
The Renaissance City Development Association approved a five-year, $2,500-a-month lease agreement with New London Seafood Distributors on Thursday and, for the time being, allayed concerns by the fleet of being evicted from the site.
New London Seafood was formed in 1989 and started operating off two piers when it still was owned by the Castle family, owners of Lehigh Oil. The fleet managed to survive at its location during the time the city took homes and businesses in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood through use of eminent domain.
The new agreement, effective Oct. 1, provides options to extend the lease for a total of 15 years and replaces a month-to-month arrangement that for years had led to uncertainty for the fleet. Monthly rent would rise by $250 a month under terms of each of the two five-year extensions. New London Seafood had been paying $400 per month.
RCDA Executive Director Peter Davis said the lease agreement supports the existing fleet in New London and provides protections for both parties.
“The fact of the matter is until we had a formal lease in place and a real business agreement that protected both parties, it was hard to stabilize commercial fishing operations in New London,” Davis said.
Gary Yerman, New London Seafood founder and owner, said he was "OK" with the agreement. He credited Gordon Videll, who represents New London Seafood, and Davis with securing an arrangement that might not have been possible otherwise.
"We did need some longer-term security than what we had for the past 29 years," Yerman said.
The lease defines the pier areas for use by the fishermen and limits use of the land area, alleviating “differences of opinion on use of parcel 1,” which encompasses the two piers in use by the fleet, Davis said.
The RCDA continues to market the property to potential hotel developers but acknowledges that maintaining a fishing fleet somewhere in Fort Trumbull as a water-dependent use is a mandate of the Fort Trumbull Municipal Development Plan adopted by the city in 2000.
Davis said hotel developers interested in the site are told up front about existence of the fleet, adding that some are thrilled while others would have to work to accommodate the fleet or perhaps develop a relocation plan amenable to the fleet.
Videll said it would have been unwise for Yerman to perform improvements at the pier without a formal agreement and a working relationship with the RCDA.
He credits Davis with work that has helped to smooth the sometimes rocky relationship between New London Seafood and the RCDA and its predecessor, the New London Development Corporation.
Videll said it was the first time in years that “we don’t feel like a nuisance. We feel like part of the community.”
New London Seafood "is now in a position to actually start thinking about plans to expand and improve the existing dock,” Videll said.
Videll said there is a stark difference between the way Stonington’s commercial fishing fleet is celebrated as an attraction and New London’s essentially is overlooked.
New London Seafood already has pitched the idea of creating a fishing village in Fort Trumbull.
Yerman said the complicated history of the fleet in New London has included proposals that would have moved the operations to CV Pier in New London. At one time, he said operations were performed on a barge docked near the pier. He and his partner purchased a waterfront site in Groton in the event they were forced to leave New London.
Most of the operations of New London Seafood — ice making, offloading and shipping equipment — is located at the northern pier. The wooden pier is in disrepair and used for mooring boats.
Yerman said New London Seafood is the largest operation in the state by volume, with between 6 million and 8 million pounds of seafood hauled from the docks each year. What started with three boats has grown to between 10 and 12 that utilize the New London facility for unloading, and more than a dozen more boats use the facility part-time.