Aquinnah voters will be asked to help preserve Gay Head Light

The lighthouse sits precariously close to an ever eroding cliff. — File photo by Lisa Vanderhoop

Aquinnah voters will be asked to help preserve the Gay Head Lighthouse at a special town meeting next Tuesday, February 5. The iconic, red brick beacon that has guided mariners since 1856 sits 50 feet from the edge of a cliff that is receding about two feet every year. The lighthouse must be moved within the next couple of years if it is to be saved, according to experts.

There are two articles on the special town meeting warrant. Voters will be asked whether the town should purchase the lighthouse and initiate the process to preserve, restore, and relocate it.

Article two would appropriate $5,000 from the town’s Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds to pay for a feasibility and planning study for work to save the lighthouse.

The cost to shore up and move the lighthouse is expected to reach several million dollars. One question is where to move it.

The special town meeting is scheduled to begin at 7:30 pm. Voters will be asked to arrive early and conclude a special town meeting originally scheduled on November 15 that failed to attract a quorum. Voters will be asked to take action on various bill-paying and money transfer articles.

Aquinnah town administrator Adam Wilson said any efforts by the town to preserve the lighthouse is dependent on passage of the first article. The second will provide the Save the Gay Head Light Committee (SGHLC) with the funds to begin the process of determining the best way to preserve the lighthouse.

The lighthouse is currently the property of the U.S. Coast Guard and is leased to and maintained by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. On December 12, Congressman William Keating sent a letter to the commander of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Robert J. Papp Jr., asking that the Coast Guard list the lighthouse as excess property. Listing the structure as excess property would allow the ownership to be transferred to a local entity or group like the town.

Mr. Wilson pointed out that the purchase would be for a nominal sum but that the restoration could be as much as $500,000 to make the lighthouse sturdy enough to move. The cost of moving would be dependent on how far and where it is moved. It is possible that property adjacent to the lighthouse’s present location could be purchased for the move. That could be as little as $17,000 or as much as $700,000, he said.

Mr. Wilson and Elise LeBovit, chairman of SGHLC, said in conversations with the Times that it is possible that the lighthouse could be moved down to town-owned land at the nearby traffic circle. But that could be more costly than purchasing an adjacent lot and the lower elevation of the circle might not be as desirable. Ms. LeBovit made the point that people in cars as well as in boats use the light for guidance and that moving it too far from its historic location could present navigation problems.

The fragility of the present location is due not only to cliff erosion from storms and rain but to erosion from springs and subsurface water, according to Ms. Lebovit. She said that a geological study must be done to determine what land in the area is substantial enough to support the lighthouse. She said that the areas with white clay are the best and that there is much boggy land around the lighthouse that would not work.

Ms. LeBovit said that she followed the moving of the Sankaty Lighthouse on Nantucket in 2007. The lighthouse was moved 400 feet from an eroding bluff that was 70 feet from the light. She said that the Nantucket project cost around $4 million dollars. She thinks the Gay Head light can be moved for less than $2 million.

The SGHLC has already been in touch with the company that oversaw the Sankaty Lighthouse move, International Chimney Corp., a company based in Buffalo. They also handled the moves of two lighthouses on the Cape — the Highland and the Nauset — as well as Block Island’s Southeast Light and the Cape Hatteras Light Station in North Carolina. Ms. LeBovit said that the project would have to go out to bid.

The lighthouse is an important Vineyard symbol for many Islanders, according to Mr. Wilson and Ms. LeBovit. They said they think raising funds from private sources, as was done on Nantucket, is a realistic prospect to help save the light. Mr. Wilson said that he will look into the possibility of asking all the Island towns to chip in CPA funds “like they did to fix the Dukes County Courthouse windows,” he said.