Gay Head Lighthouse move snags on endangered weed

State agency concerns forced a quick shift in the $3 million project to relocate the historic lighthouse.

Kyle Mercaldo, of Sourati Engineering Group, surveys the area around Gay Head Lighthouse on March 25. – Photo by Lisa Vanderhoop

The $3 million project to to move the endangered Gay Head Light is back on track now, but for several weeks Aquinnah town officials scrambled to keep it from being derailed when state environmental officials said that the path the light would travel to its new home would damage endangered broad tinker’s weed habitat.

The historic lighthouse is now just about 40 feet from the edge of the Gay Head cliffs. Members and supporters of the Save the Gay Head Light committee have been working furiously to raise the money needed to move the iconic brick structure to a site 135 feet southeast of its current location, on an abutting lot and away from the quickly eroding coastal bank. The move of the sandstone lighthouse built in 1856 is scheduled to begin in April, and be complete by Memorial Day.

Until last month, fundraising and paperwork had proved to be the biggest hurdles facing committee members. On Feb. 20, the town of Aquinnah took ownership of the Gay Head Light when the General Services Administration, the agency that manages the property of the U.S. government, transferred the deed to the town for the sum of $1.

In a letter dated Feb. 12, addressed to the Aquinnah conservation commission, Thomas French, assistant director of the Massachusetts Natural Heritage Endangered Species Program (NHESP), said that the project “as currently proposed will occur within the actual habitat of Broad Tinker’s Weed (Triosteum perfoliatum),” a species state-listed as endangered and protected by the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA).

The plant is known to exist in only three locations: the town of Sandwich, the Elizabeth Islands, and the Gay Head cliffs, according to the NESP web site. Also known as feverwort or wild coffee, the plant produces bright orange berries that can be dried, roasted, and brewed as an alternative to coffee beans.

The state regulators asked town officials to conduct a botanical survey by a qualified scientist to see if the broad tinker’s weed is growing in the relocation area. NHESP required the survey to be done during the period from June 1 to Nov. 15, when the weed begins to bloom and grow. That would have delayed the planned relocation of the lighthouse, and increased the risk that the eroding cliffs would advance further toward the light.

Mr. French said his agency must preapprove the botanist before a survey could begin, and the survey must encompass all work areas. Once all the work had been completed, he said, Natural Heritage would determine if it would result in a “take,” any harm or disturbance. If it was determined a take would occur, the project would need to be redesigned or a special permit issued.

Mr. French said “no soil or vegetation disturbance, work, clearing, grading or other activities” could be conducted on the site until NHESP had completed its review.

The Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program exists within the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. It is a small agency with a powerful regulatory reach. Natural Heritage is responsible for the regulatory protection of rare species and their habitats, and derives its authority from MESA.

Natural Heritage has review authority for any work that would be done on the properties that fall within the category of state-designated “priority habitat.” It is a designation based on the known geographical extent of habitat for all state-listed rare species, both plants and animals.

On Martha’s Vineyard, the state has designated about two-thirds of the entire Island as priority habitat for protected animal or plant species.

A weed?

“We don’t know whether that plant even exists,” Sarah Thulin, chairman of the conservation commission, told The Times.

The town hired Oxbow Associates, an environmental engineering firm, at a cost of $11,700 to advise town officials. In cases where a project involves the “take” of protected endangered species, NHESP often requires three times the amount of land set aside under conservation restrictions, as a way to mitigate the loss of protected habitat.

Oxbow Associates recommended that the town craft and implement a mitigation plan, even though no one is sure that the plant exists.

“Because of the time frame that we’re under with the lighthouse move, we have agreed to just consider it a ‘take,’” Ms. Thulin said.

Those involved in planning the move took the latest bureaucratic hiccup in stride. The process of taking ownership of the lighthouse, and permitting and planning the project, required them to coordinate efforts with more than a dozen federal, state, and local agencies.

“It’s just another minor bump in the road,” said Len Butler, a member of the Save the Gay Head Light Committee and the man responsible for overseeing the move, told The Times Wednesday in a phone conversation. “A project like this is full of little things. It’s one of the things we didn’t anticipate, and it took us a few weeks to sort it out. It should be resolved in a couple of weeks. NHESP is aware of the urgency of the project.”

Town administrator Adam Wilson said the town has land available to set aside that will satisfy the NHESP requirements. The town will have to attach a conservation restriction, prohibiting any development on the land, then create a conservation management plan to insure the proper conditions exist for the protected habitat.

“There’s enough time to put this mitigation plan together,” Mr. Wilson said. “I think that’s not going to be an issue; that’s easily resolvable.”

The Save the Gay Head Light Committee has raised $2.5 million toward its goal of the $3 million needed to finance the project. In their annual town meeting last year, Aquinnah voters approved $90,000 in Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds to help pay for the project. Voters in the five other Island towns approved a total of $500,000 in CPA funds to help finance the move.