How, when and where to move the Gay Head Light, along with the money to pay for it: these are all active topics for discussion by a newly-formed committee charged with developing a plan to relocate the historic brick tower.
The lighthouse now stands 50 feet from an eroding cliff at the westernmost edge of the Vineyard.
A 12-member committee appointed by the town selectmen last month held its first meeting Wednesday, which was mostly organizational.
“I like this project because it’s not political and the light shines on us all,” said committee member Elise LeBovit who was elected chairman. “It’s a great opportunity to preserve history.”
The project to move the lighthouse is at a very early stage and many details remain to be settled, including eventual ownership, the cost of relocating and, not least, logistics and contracting. A Feb. 5 special town meeting has been scheduled in Aquinnah where voters will be asked to have the town begin the process of taking ownership of the light. If voters agree, the town will write an application to the General Services Administration. The first step is for the U.S. Coast Guard to declare the lighthouse as surplus property. In a letter to the Coast Guard commandant last month, Cong. William Keating urged immediate action on that front, given the recent erosion at the Gay Head Cliffs.
Under the federal National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, lighthouses that have been declared surplus property are offered at no cost to eligible state or local governments, historic preservation groups, nonprofit corporations or community development organizations.
Early estimates on moving the lighthouse were developed for the town last summer by consultants from International Chimney Co., a concern that specializes in moving lighthouses. The company found that little land was left around the light on the ocean side, making logistics potentially difficult. The total cost of moving and renovating the light is currently estimated at $1.5 to $3 million.
In addition to Ms. LeBovit, committee members are David Nathans, Betsey Mayhew, Chris Scott, Larry Hohlt, Bettina Washington, Robyn Robinson, Berta Welch, Liz Witham, Meg Bodnar,
Mitzi Pratt and Duncan Caldwell.
At the meeting Wednesday morning committee members discussed the first steps and beyond for the project to relocate the lighthouse which dates to 1856. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum currently oversees the care of the light, along with lighthouses in Edgartown and at East Chop.
Mr. Nathans, who is executive director of the museum, said preservation was a top priority, followed by ownership and fundraising. Mr. Nathans said an engineering study done by the museum five years ago came in with a cost estimate of $500,000 to restore the lighthouse. There are also potential environmental and archeological issues.
Committee member Duncan Caldwell, an archeologist with long ties to Aquinnah who participated via video conference, said geological surveys will need to be done in conjunction with site planning.
“As the water rises and storms get stronger I think it would be very difficult for any scientist to tell you where it’s going to erode the fastest,” Mr. Caldwell said. “We need to use common sense and try to pull the lighthouse really considerably back from the edge and increase its chances of survival for something like 50 years.”
Bettina Washington, who is the historic preservation officer for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), observed that the project will take a village. “Secure its safety and find a place to put that lighthouse — that’s where our focus really needs to be. I don’t believe there is going to be one entity that can support this project . . . it’s going to be a unique opportunity for us to work with private entities, public, and governmental, because it means something to all of us on different levels,” she said. She also noted the urgency. “We’re pretty lucky we just had that one storm; if we have more storms we’re going to have a real issue,” Ms. Washington said.
The committee also said it would explore the idea of having the lighthouse designated an endangered historic place by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Ms. LeBovit was elected committee chairman despite some question about her dual role as a real estate agent who may be involved in handling the sale of property where the lighthouse could potentially be moved. Ms. LeBovit said in the event that happens, she will not take a commission on the sale, and while some committee members remained concerned about an appearance of conflict, the vote to elect her as chairman was unanimous.
The next meeting of the committee is Jan. 23.