Cong. William Keating appealed directly to the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard this week to expedite the transfer of ownership of the Gay Head Light, which must be moved soon due to rapid erosion at the Gay Head Cliffs.
In a letter to Adml. Robert J. Papp Jr. yesterday, Mr. Keating urged the Coast Guard to declare the lighthouse as excess property. This will allow the town of Aquinnah to apply for ownership of the property and begin to plan for the relocation of the tower.
“This iconic landmark is at serious risk of succumbing to the same natural elements that give Martha’s Vineyard its recognizable beauty,” Mr. Keating wrote to the Coast Guard admiral. “The land on which the light tower is situated is eroding at a rate of nearly two feet per year and only 50 feet now remain between the tower and the approaching cliffs. If the Gay Head Light is not relocated, Martha’s Vineyard will undoubtedly lose a historic emblem within just a few short years.”
The letter is published on the editorial page in today’s edition.
“Given the rate at which the tower property is eroding, I am respectfully requesting that the Coast Guard report the Gay Head Light as surplus so as to expedite the property transfer. Further delay may lead to irreversible consequences, including physical damage to the lighthouse and adverse impacts on the local economy of Martha’s Vineyard,” Mr. Keating wrote.
The designation of the lighthouse as surplus property is the first step in the transfer process under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act. The act allows the General Services Agency to transfer ownership of 12 lighthouses across the country each year that are no longer critical to the mission of the Coast Guard. The lighthouses are first offered to local governments, nonprofit organizations or community groups before being put out to bid for private ownership.
Edgartown is currently applying for ownership of the Edgartown Lighthouse, which was listed as excess property by the Coast Guard last May.
In a brief telephone interview Thursday, Mr. Keating said he is concerned about “what’s going to happen with the lighthouse and the threat that it might have to close.”
“We wanted to make sure based on local interest that we flag this . . . and try and see if [the Coast Guard] would give it a more rapid response,” Mr. Keating said. “We want to make them aware . . . and continue to have ongoing conversations with them.”
The original wooden lighthouse in Gay Head went into service in 1799, the first on the Vineyard, among other things serving as a critical aid to navigation for mariners through the hazardous ocean ledge known as Devil’s Bridge. A new brick structure was built in 1856, which is the lighthouse today. The tower was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.
The Martha’s Vineyard Museum has leased the lighthouse from the Coast Guard since 1994 and opens it for public educational tours. President Obama and his family visited the lighthouse during their summer vacation three years ago.
A report commissioned by the museum this year found the lighthouse will need to be moved in the next one to three years at an estimated cost of $3 million.
In October the Aquinnah selectmen learned that the Coast Guard had plans to dispose of the lighthouse. The selectmen have appointed a committee to help lead and manage the logictics around moving the lighthouse.
In his letter, Mr. Keating underscored the immediacy of the situation.
“It is imperative that drastic preservation efforts begin immediately,” he wrote.
“The lighthouse is far more than a beacon for approaching ships,” he told the Gazette. “It has become an essential component of the local economy — an economy which remains strongly tied to the tourism industry. Thousands of visitors are attracted to the tower each year for its panoramic views of the Vineyard Sound and the Island.”