For the first time in the dozen years since the federal government began giving away lighthouses under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, it is threatening to take one back.
The National Park Service has told the Town of North Hempstead on Long Island, New York, that it may void the municipality’s acquisition of the 1877 Stepping Stones Lighthouse in Long Island Sound for failing to stabilize, restore, and open the structure to the public.
The town, blaming the economic downturn for its lack of activity, has told the park service that if they can find someone else better equipped to do the job, it should give them the beacon.
North Hempstead, New York officials in September told the park service — in a three-page report filed a year late and containing no photographs — that no major repairs have been required and employees visit monthly to clean the exterior and inspect the interior.
But lighthouse preservationists who visited Stepping Stones Lighthouse say there is no evidence that the town has done anything. They describe a large crack in the basement floor, a crumbling chimney and boarded-up windows. The preservationists have complained to the park service that the building may collapse if ice forms around the rip-rap this winter.
Pamela Setchell, president of Huntington Harbor Lighthouse Preservation Society, which has restored and operates that lighthouse, toured Stepping Stones last summer with a foundation expert and town officials. “The hole through the basement floor that leads out to the open water is large enough to drop a fishing line through,” she said. “The granite foundation is in very serious need of work. Much of the pointing between the granite blocks is missing. The rip-rap facing the heavily trafficked Sound side has slid away, leaving it unprotected.”
“The brick and granite around the northern top side of the tower are bowing outward,” she said. “This will create an unstable situation with the floor in the lantern room. This room must be accessed on a regular basis in order to service the aids to navigation.”
“There is a bumper crop of vegetation growing in what is left of the gutters” causing water intrusion, Setchell said. “This destroys the roof edge and fascia, rapidly causing more serious damage to the structure. This water intrusion has caused substantial rot in the framing structure.”
“There is a substantial amount of debris inside,” she said. “No one has even been out there with so much as a broom since the town was awarded the lighthouse. This lighthouse has very little time left to make serious repairs before the structure is lost.”
In October, the park service, concerned about deterioration of the lighthouse, gave the town until early in 2012 to develop a new preservation timeline and financial plan for restoration. The agency also set a June 15 deadline for the town to address unspecified safety concerns raised by the U.S. Coast Guard, which continues to maintain the optic.
The town gained the red brick and granite-trimmed Second Empire-style lighthouse off Kings Point and east of the Throgs Neck Bridge in 2008. Last September, the town filed a report about its condition and its intentions. It stated that the economic downturn had delayed efforts to stabilize, rehabilitate, and open Stepping Stones to the public as required by the terms of the donation agreement.
The park service letter in response stated that “we are very concerned that in the years since the town has accepted stewardship of the Stepping Stones Lighthouse that so very little progress has been made. In fact, its condition has deteriorated during this time. In the photographs you submitted with the report, approximately half of the fascia below the roof on the southeast elevation is now missing, allowing water to penetrate the juncture of this exterior wall with the roof. It also appears that the Town has not ‘carried out’ the cyclical maintenance plan...”
North Hempstead Supervisor Jon Kaiman said the Coast Guard “failed to maintain the facility for a generation and then they dumped it on others. We were prepared to use our in-house resources to monitor, improve and maintain this facility as money and resources became available. Over the last several years we’ve had our personnel visiting the site doing evaluations and assessments.”
“We’re not going to be investing local dollars to improve this facility,” Kaiman continued. “If the federal government feels there is a caretaker better suited, they can have it. We’re prepared to make sure it doesn’t deteriorate further and we’re prepared to ultimately use resources that we obtain to fix it and then maintain it going forward, but that’s going to be through grants. That was our plan all along. We’ve researched funding opportunities.” He said the town has applied for grants over the years. He said there were federal grants available when the town requested the lighthouse “and within a year’s time of obtaining it, those things dried up. It’s not appropriate for a local government to invest $1 million or $2 million in a lighthouse. It’s just not fair to our residents.”
As to the issue of stabilization, Kaiman said, “we’ve been doing that all along.” He denied the building was in bad shape.
He said the town would submit an updated report to the park service and leave it up to the agency about how to proceed.
When it applied for the lighthouse, the town estimated restoration costs at $2.2 million to $3.4 million, with annual maintenance of about $20,000.
The park service letter suggested that the town to find a partner for the project or another entity to take over the lighthouse - one that the federal government would approve.
Since Congress passed the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act in 2000, ownership of 83 lighthouses has been transferred and none have been taken back, according to the General Services Administration which oversees the process. Six historic lighthouses around Long Island have been given to new owners or are available for adoption.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 2012 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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