Preservation and stewardship are crucial themes in the next phase for the old Gay Head Light.
This was the message from U.S. government officials who met with Aquinnah town leaders late last week to discuss the pending transfer of ownership of the lighthouse from the U.S. Coast Guard to the town.
“Preservation is key,” said John Kelly, director of the office of real property for the General Services Administration. “It’s not a get rich scheme for GSA,” he added.
“We’re in a race against time and the forces of nature, but we’re ready and willing to take on this tremendous and important project,” said Len Butler, a member of the Save the Gay Head Light committee.
The comments came during a meeting between the town committee and members of the Coast Guard, National Park Service and GSA last Thursday afternoon.
On a rainy, windswept day the group toured the 1856 brick lighthouse, which now stands just 46 feet from the edge of an eroding cliff.
Simultaneous plans are underway to transfer ownership of the lighthouse to the town and then move it.
On August 1 the Coast Guard declared the lighthouse surplus property under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, which allows the Coast Guard to sell 12 lighthouses a year that are no longer deemed mission critical. The GSA, which handles the government’s real estate transactions, issued a notice of availability after the declaration.
Aquinnah was one of five parties that submitted letters of interest. Of the five, the town and another group, Roosevelt International Academy in Rhode Island, were found viable. (The names of the other three parties have not been disclosed.) Roosevelt Academy spokesman Jacob Weaver attended the meeting and said he was not interested in owning the light but would rather partner with the town to help with fundraising and create educational opportunities.
The town’s formal application to the government is due Feb. 5, 2014. The National Park Service reviews the application and makes a recommendation to the GSA.
The window of time is small for the town, which needs to raise $3 million and move the lighthouse by the end of next year. Lisa McCann, regional coordinator for the historic surplus property program at the park service, said during a conference call that her office would work as quickly as possible once the application is in. She said it could take two weeks before her agency hands the application to the GSA for final approval.
Ms. McCann said applications are subject to stringent review.
“We want to assure that any potential new steward . . . can manage and care for this light in perpetuity,” she said.
The application review team includes park service staff and lighthouse experts.
Details of the move, geotechnical data, geological information and financial information will have to be part of the application, Ms. McCann said. Two chances are given to complete and revise an application.
If the park service rejects the application, the lighthouse could go out to bid for private ownership, although that scenario is considered unlikely. Edgartown recently went through the same process and is expected to take ownership of its lighthouse by the end of the year. The Edgartown Light does not need to be moved.
The Gay Head Lighthouse committee is considering three different sites for relocating the light. Distance, cost, geology and elevation will help determine which site is selected.
Lieut. Matthew Stuck of the Coast Guard aids to navigation branch said his biggest concern with the move is to maintain the existing arch and visibility of the sweeping beam. The red and white rotating beacon was slated to be replaced with a flashing LED light to bring it up to current standards, but Mr. Stuck’s department was able to track down a replacement optic which will be installed before the end of the year.
After the transfer of ownership, the Coast Guard will continue to maintain the optic as an active aid to navigation.
Lieutenant Stuck also underscored the historic and maritime importance of the light.
“In the 1850s, the Gay Head Light was one of the top 10 most important lights in the country because the Cape Cod Canal wasn’t there, and the light facilitated the coastwise transit of schooners,” he said. “A hundred years ago it was the only reference they had other than celestial navigation.”