As erosion inches the Gay Head Lighthouse closer to the edge, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum is moving ahead with a study to assess the urgency of relocating the 156-year-old structure.

The study will take place over the course of three years and provide a “more realistic” prediction of what the long-term needs are for the area, museum director David Nathans said yesterday.

“Hopefully each year we’ll gain more information and it will tell us the pace of what’s happening,” he said. “We know it’s shifting, that’s obvious, but the question is . . . given the nature of that bank and what it is composed of, can we more realistically predict how quickly it could potentially erode? It will give us a better sense of what we can do to slow it.”

“Mother Nature is hard to change and the study will give us a better sense of when we need to start the wheels moving to potentially move it,” he added.

The study is being managed by Patrick Williams, a geologist based in California with extensive knowledge of the Island’s geographical makeup.

Mr. Nathans said there is approximately 50 feet between the cliff and the lighthouse and erosion to the cliff varies year to year. “Some years it’s been a few inches, other years it’s been a few feet,” he said. He estimated it would be at least 25 years until the structure would need to be moved.

Aquinnah voters approved spending $2,500 in community preservation act monies on the study at the annual town meeting Tuesday night, and will be asked to fund an additional $2,500 for the next two years, Mr. Nathans said. The museum is also contributing to the study. The lighthouse is owned by the U.S. Coast Guard, which leases it to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

Voters also approved an additional $25,000 in repair funds for the lighthouse at the annual meeting.

For the past six years the town has annually approved $10,000 to $25,000 in Community Preservation Act funds to be used on small restoration repairs and larger emergency projects, such as $40,000 for new bricks for the area just below the walk around.

Richard Skidmore
Lighthouse keeper Richard Skidmore. — Ivy Ashe

Aquinnah lighthouse keeper Richard Skidmore said the bricks had not been attended to in 150 years. “When I had the mason there looking it over, he told me it had never been done before,” Mr. Skidmore said.

Mr. Skidmore said the town is looking to coordinate with other towns on the Island and on the mainland to secure sufficient community preservation act funds to complete a full renovation of the building, and possibly secure funding for moving the structure.

The lighthouse could be moved enough within the town property lines to give it another 30 or 40 years, he said. The federal government would likely not help in funding the move or restoration.

The Gay Head Lighthouse is under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, which allows for the government to dispose of historic light stations by transferring the lighthouses to local governments or nonprofits, and releases them from the obligation to maintain them. “They’d rather put up a pole with a light on it,” he said. “So it comes down to use in our community . . . it’s the CPA monies that are enabling us to preserve historic emblems.”

In other cliff related news, Michael Stutz, member of the town’s Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank advisory board, announced the land bank is “on the verge” of opening a half mile of trail off Moshup Trail. The property is being added to the land bank’s Aquinnah Headlands Preserve, which includes areas at the north and south heads of the clay cliffs as well as Moshup Beach. The new trail abuts an area of the cliffs that has suffered from erosion due to walking paths cut across the face of the cliff; at the time of purchase last fall, the land bank intended to install fencing and gates to protect the area from further disturbances. The land bank purchased the property from the Vineyard Open Land Foundation.