Friday, August 5, 2011

A Connecticut Lighthouse Is for Sale

Friday, August 5, 2011

A 137-year-old beacon off the coast of Fairfield, Conn.—the Penfield Reef Lighthouse—is about to go back on the market after a protracted legal battle left it high and dry.

A spokeswoman confirmed the lighthouse could be posted on the U.S. General Services Administration's auction website as soon as June but declined to comment further.

[LIGHT1]Kraig Anderson

Penfield Reef Lighthouse is expected to be put on the block.

The two-story building is plunked about a mile off the coast, where it guided sailors in one the most dangerous areas to navigate in Long Island Sound. It has four bedrooms, a sitting room, a kitchen and a supply room, according to the National Register of Historic Places. Local legend maintains that it's haunted by former keepers.

It's also haunted by a land dispute: The state of Connecticut lays claim to the rocky isle beneath the lighthouse and insists any operator lease the land from the state—a stance that enmeshed it in a three-year fight.

Advances in technology led the government to decommission most lighthouses. In 2000 Congress authorized the Coast Guard to transfer them to local governments or nonprofits that wanted to maintain them, or else put them up for auction. Dozens of the shoreline sentries have been bought by private bidders for as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Library of Congress

A view of the lighthouse in Long Island Sound from 1874.

With a promise of a $450,000 restoration, the nonprofit Beacon Preservation of Ansonia, Conn., won ownership of the Penfield Reef Lighthouse in 2008, beating out the town of Fairfield, the only other contender. The nonprofit operates another lighthouse in Maine.

When the nonprofit asked the General Services Administration for the deed, it ran into trouble: The federal government backed the state's claim to the land and said the charity would have to work out a lease. The Coast Guard had not been paying the state to use the land.

"We could spend a lot of money, get the lighthouse completely restored and start running programs, and the state could decide after the 10-year lease not to renew or charge us a hefty fee," said Beacon's lawyer Keith Murray.

Beacon sued the federal government last year to wrest control of the deed.

In February, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior sent a letter to Beacon rescinding the nonprofit's accepted bid because it failed to reach a deal with the state. "Because of the impasse…it is my recommendation that the property be sold by GSA at public auction," the letter stated.

This week, Beacon submitted a motion to withdraw the federal lawsuit. But both the nonprofit and the town of Fairfield say their fight for the lighthouse is not yet over.

The nonprofit said it hopes to revive talks with the federal government and the state.

Fairfield officials say that if the lighthouse goes up for auction at an affordable price, they plan to ask the Town Council to approve a bid. "The lighthouse has long been part of Fairfield's culture and history," said Jennifer Carpenter, Fairfield's Deputy Chief of Staff. "The mere fact of owning it officially would just cement our strong feelings for it."

Write to Shelly Banjo at

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