Hope for lighthouse giveaway washed away
There is no free lunch, the saying goes.
And Westport's neighbor to the east has learned that there is no free lighthouse, either.
Fairfield town officials had hoped to have the historic and long-inactive Penfield Reef Lighthouse conveyed to the town at no cost, but that plan has been sunk.
The federal government owns the lighthouse, and the U.S. General Services Administration opted to put the lighthouse on the auction block. A local group established by the Board of Selectmen -- Penfield Reef Lighthouse Preservation -- had hoped the federal government would give the historic structure to the town.
But following a recent discussion with the U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4, and U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Joseph Lieberman, Selectman Sherri Steeneck last week said the preservation group will have to continue its fundraising efforts and proceed with the public online auction, scheduled to begin Aug. 15 and running through Sept. 30.
Steeneck said seven donation checks have been received, totaling more than $1,000. The group is accepting tax-deductible donations, and checks can be made payable to Penfield Reef Lighthouse Preservation and mailed to the first selectman's office at Sullivan-Independence Hall, 725 Old Post Road, Fairfield CT 06824. If the town does not succeed in taking ownership of the lighthouse, all donations will be returned. Anonymous donations will be given to a charity. The group is working on developing a website and has a Facebook page.
Saying there is a "boatload of requirements" to owning and preserving the lighthouse, First Selectman Mike Tetreau added that obtaining it through conveyance "can be extremely expensive." If conveyed, he said, the town would have to adhere to strict guidelines, including making the lighthouse accessible to the public.
Steeneck said the sale and restoration would have to follow the requirements of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, and the list is lengthy. In addition to the preservation act's provisions, she said, the town would have to adhere to the requirements imposed by the office of the U.S. secretary of interior and obtain a "ground lease" from the state of Connecticut.
Among those requirements, she said, are restoring it to museum quality, rehabilitating the interior such as removing lead and asbestos if it were to be open to the public, and stabilizing the structure. She felt it was better to have the exterior maintained, refurbish the boat hoist and restore the inside beacon.
And Tetreau added that after all the work to restore and maintain the lighthouse, the town would have to ensure it is still accessible to the U.S. Coast Guard. "What the federal government is really trying to do is to get this off their books and have somebody else maintain their lighthouse, but still function as a navigational lighthouse."
Steeneck said the preservation group is exploring a grant to do a full survey of the property and have plans drafted on how to restore it to exact historic specifications.
"We are trying to do everything without town funds."
Selectman Jim Walsh asked about whether any town funds would be directed toward the auction. Tetreau said that for the town to provide funds, the request would have to be approved by the Boards of Selectmen and Finance and the Representative Town Meeting by Aug. 15, and he didn't think that would happen in time.
But Walsh responded, "I would just consider it tragic if we lost the auction, and we hear we lost the auction by a couple of thousands of dollars."
"You know what," Steeneck added, "if I looked out there and there was a lighthouse that wasn't falling apart and somebody else was taking care of it, I'd be OK about that."