NORWALK, Conn. – It's an eye-catcher: A Mississippi River boat sits at Norwalk's Veterans Memorial Park, catching the attention of anyone going over the Stroffolino Bridge and inspiring tourists to pose in front of it for photos.
But its owner is considering taking it elsewhere. "I could leave tomorrow. I just don't want to, not without fighting," said Ken Hart of Westport.
The Island Belle is good for the people of Norwalk, according to Hart and city officials, but others say it is bad for wildlife. They wonder why the boat was allowed to be docked at the Norwalk Visitor's Dock because it's in the federal channel on one side of the dock. If it's on the other side, it sits on the bottom at low tide, they say. "Basically, it's illegal," said Pete Johnson, chairman of the Shellfish Commission.
"There's an adopted set of rules that's out there, and it should apply to everybody," said Tony D'Andrea, chairman of the Harbor Management Commission, which has spent much time talking about the boat.
The Island Belle's one-year lease for the dock ran out April 30. The boat is now on a month-to-month lease, Hart said, and it can't stay where it is.
"Relocation of the boat is really the focus for us," said Hart, stressing that he wants to stay in Norwalk. "Our goal is to reposition the boat into a spot where everybody loves her."
No one realized the boat was in the federal channel when the lease for the 110-foot-long boat was authorized at an April 2011 meeting of the Common Council, he said. He said he has received no complaints from tug boat or barge captains, but the boat was moved to the landward side of the dock when it became an issue.
Now it's on the bottom at low tide, according to Johnson. Paint rubs off a boat sitting on the bottom, and oysters will not grow. "Nothing irritates me more than that boat sitting on the bottom," said Johnson. "I'm not blaming him, but I'm blaming the city officials who let him do it."
Johnson means Mike Mocciae, director of the Department of Recreation and Parks who did not respond to a request for comment.
The harbor commission put in an ordinance a few years ago prohibiting boats from sitting on the bottom, Johnson said. Connecticut's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Army Corps of Engineers followed suit. "All of a sudden Parks and Rec thinks they don't have to abide by the rules," Johnson said.
"The Island Belle does not sit on the bottom at low tide," Hart said. "We were repositioned on a location not too long ago in a dredged area. When they dredge an area, it is no longer a viable habitat for clams and oysters. We pose no threat to the marine life."
Rent has been $2,000 a month with a $200 monthly utility fee. Johnson said it should be much higher, given the boat's size. "Mocciae says it's a commercial dock," he said. "If it's a commercial dock, how come you won't let the oystermen and clammers dock there? I was told to shut up."
Hart thinks the dispute is personal. "I'll leave," he said. "We can go. Our concern is being a contributor to this city."
The Island Belle has taken schoolchildren out at the end of the year, he said, and has been used for fundraisers. A group of Cub Scouts is going out June 3. "Our calendar is full of freebies. We're trying to absorb as much of the cost as we can," he said.
The boat is a draw for Norwalk, he says, many longtime residents have said trips on the Island Belle provided them with their first views of the city from the water. In addition, waterfront businesses bring in federal dollars for dredging, he said.
"Other cities want us there," he said. "I could go north and go to New Haven. I could even go south and go to Stamford. I could go to Long Island. But I believe in Norwalk and its history."
This story was updated at 11:30 a.m.