Published August 26. 2013 4:00AM Updated August 26. 2013 6:13PM
Waterford - If tourists aren't careful, they can drive right past Mago Point, which is under the Niantic River bridge.
Out-of-town boaters can find it difficult to find a temporary place to dock, and visitors who come to the businesses there are hard-pressed to find parking or a permanent bathroom.
Mago Point business owners say the town not only needs to loosen its zoning regulations so they can develop the area but should invest in the area and put it on the tourism map.
"Mago Point was the forgotten child when they put the bridge across," said Dave Sylvestre, an owner of The Dock, a seafood restaurant.
Route 156, the main road between Waterford and Niantic, ran through the area until 1991, when the old swing bridge over the Niantic River was replaced. The current bridge, which has a 30-foot clearance, bypasses the point, leaving it cut off.
Sylvestre added that hopefully the town will work with business owners to develop the area.
Mago Point's heyday was in the '60s, '70s and '80s, before the old bridge was replaced, and many motels, nightclubs, restaurants and businesses left the area in the early '90s. Charter boats and fishing have managed to keep it afloat.
Now that the new railroad bridge over the Niantic River has been completed nearby and Amtrak's contractor, Cianbro, is cleaning up the area, members of the revitalized Mago Point Business Association say it is time for the town to do its part to bring the area back to life. They point to activity just across the river in Niantic and wonder why Mago Point is the town's forgotten jewel.
Association President Gary D. Smith purchased 1st Street marina in 2009 and filed for permits to upgrade his property in April 2010. The Planning and Zoning Commission is scheduled to discuss his application at 7 tonight in Town Hall.
"It has been an uphill battle since then to try to get things improved over there," Smith said. "Dennis (Goderre, the town's new planning director) has helped in the last four months. Prior to that I was stonewalled."
Smith is seeking approval to replace a fixed dock with a 290-foot-long floating dock, which he said would provide boaters easier access and two slips for transient boaters.
Because he is asking for the change, the commission required him to bring the property up to code, which calls for having 1.5 parking spaces per slip. He said he fought the requirement because he doesn't want a grassy area with benches to become a parking lot.
"I am headstrong. I have got a nice area there where people can come in and enjoy the view. It is the highest point in this whole neighborhood, so I am trying to maintain the outer point," Smith said.
In May, the commission approved a regulation change requested by Smith that decreased the parking requirement to one space per slip.
This was a great accomplishment, he said, but it was still one more requirement after several others, such as the installation of riprap to prevent erosion.
His latest battle is over whether he has to widen 1st Street. The town wants him to widen it so that an emergency vehicle can get down the road. Smith said the work would cost $80,000.
"I think there might be a better way," Smith said.
He is still waiting to hear from town officials about an alternative.
Besides Smith there are several other new business owners in Mago Point.
Steve Harrington and his wife purchased the Niantic Bay Boat Valet in February 2013 and built new waterfront decks, renovated the store, refurbished racking and storage for boats and built new landscaping. Harrington said he has plans to build a restaurant that serves breakfast and lunch next year.
Harrington said he has not had any permitting problems because he was upgrading his property, not making it different.
But he has heard about the problems other business owners have had and said it would be good if the town would be more flexible and let businesses that have plans to enhance the area go forward.
Harrington said he would like the town to contribute to the purchasing of a mooring that boaters could use. He said he is looking into purchasing a water taxi that could bring people to and from the mooring.
"I think with the right management that (Mago Point) is a sleepy little giant sitting there," Harrington said.
The site of the old Moby Dick's nightclub is now a parking lot owned by developer John Cabral of Glastonbury. He has talked to the town and business association about how to use the site.
Sylvestre purchased The Dock restaurant four years ago and was trying for several years to build a restroom, which he said the town would not allow him to do because his property already had several variances.
The restaurant has a bathroom for employees but only portable bathrooms for customers. He added that everyone on Mago Point uses them.
Sylvestre said he tried to bring in a trailer with higher- quality portable bathrooms inside and attach the trailer to a septic tank. But he said the town told him the change was too permanent.
But business owners say they are hopeful that Goderre will be more willing to work with them. He has scheduled a workshop for business association members on Sept. 11.
"There is stuff in place and stuff that probably might be enforcing too much, perhaps," Goderre said.
He added that Mago Point is a unique waterfront area that could be turned into a destination tourism spot. With some street landscaping, signage, dock improvements, diverse businesses, more parking spaces and improvements to businesses' facades, he said, the area could attract more people.
Goderre said a vision for Mago Point is in the infant stage, but the town plans to talk to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection about leasing or purchasing the boat launch lot in the middle of the point and using it for parking. The contractor for Amtrak is resurfacing the parking area under the Niantic River Bridge, which will provide another 80 to 100 spaces.
He said the town might apply for grants for businesses to improve their facades as well as grants for improving street landscaping such as decorative, ornamental light poles, trees and sidewalks. There could also be kiosks, bazaars and fairs once in a while, Goderre said.
"Part of the streetscaping experience is allowing and having properties built closer to the street to create a pedestrian-oriented environment, so people can walk along shops, window browse, hopefully go in and buy something too," Goderre said.
The rocks along the shore are also not easy for fishing, he said, and there could be some enhancements along the shore and a dock from Mago Point Park.