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U.S. to Give Beacons Away

Landmarks: Lighthouses at Point Sur and Pigeon Point will be among the first to be transferred to states and local groups.

October 07, 2002|SALLY ANN CONNELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

POINT SUR, Calif. — They are remnants of a bygone era, the solitary towers with their beacons, sprinkled along the Pacific Coast. For years, the federal government has continued to own dozens of increasingly dilapidated lighthouses in California, and hundreds along America's coasts overall.

But now the U.S. Department of the Interior has announced that it is placing on a fast track a plan to give away lighthouses. It is starting with 20 lights, including the Pigeon Point Lighthouse and the Point Sur Lighthouse at the northern end of the Big Sur Coast.

The federal agency says lighthouses, while still serving as navigational aids, have principally become historic and tourist sites. It says those functions can best be put in the hands of states and local groups.

News of the impending U.S. giveaway startled some lighthouse aficionados across the country, a deeply committed group that follows and cares for favorite lighthouses like old friends.

But state officials and local volunteers in California say that there is no cause for alarm and that they will continue to care for and restore the two lighthouses that are landmarks just off California 1. The state Department of Parks & Recreation owns the land surrounding both Point Sur and Pigeon Point light, which is near Pescadero, south of San Francisco.

Despite some news accounts that made it appear such lighthouses might simply go to the highest bidder--ending up as hotels or private homes--the two California landmarks are expected to remain in the care of the state and devoted followers. Private owners will have the chance to acquire lighthouses around the nation, but only as a last recourse and with tight strictures on how the properties can be used.

A federal law in 2000 gave public agencies and nonprofit groups priority in the maintenance of the lights, with potential private owners considered only if those entities are not interested.

"It has been our unwritten intention for some time to get those two lighthouses," said Roy Stearns, spokesman for the state parks system. "Nobody had formalized a proposal to get them, so we've been caught a little off-guard by being forced to deal with it now."

The suddenness of the lighthouse giveaway follows the Department of Interior's recent announcement that it would search for new operators to defray the substantial cost of using the aging lights. While the buildings and surrounding properties shift to new operators, the beacons will continue to be operated by the Coast Guard as navigational aids.

The Interior Department plans to "give away" 300 lighthouses in all over the next 10 years, hoping that local governments and private nonprofit groups can raise the substantial funds needed to preserve the structures.

The federal official who is leading the effort to find new owners for the lights said local groups should not fear that all of the cherished properties will be snapped up by private owners.

"Since the program is based on preservation planning for these lighthouses, past records showing commitment will certainly give a natural advantage in the process," said Kevin Foster, chief of the National Park Service's Maritime Heritage Program.

State parks officials say such commitment has been in ample supply in volunteers at Point Sur lighthouse, a striking outpost on the coast for more than 100 years.

The lighthouse and several support buildings stand on what appears to be an enormous rock that juts into the Pacific Ocean.

It largely has been the work of the Central Coast Lighthouse Keepers Assn. that has kept the Point Sur buildings in their historic condition.

The group, mostly retirees, gathers regularly to scrape, paint and rebuild the lighthouse and other structures. Members negotiate contracts for the work they cannot do, such as removing lead paint. They manage the lighthouse Web site. Many also work as state park docents, giving three-hour tours on weekends.

In one "banner year," the group raised $200,000 for work around the property, said Doug Williams, treasurer of the organization. And it's not atypical for the association to bring in $50,000 a year for improvements.

The group has become creative in raising funds for the light and support buildings. When a cellular phone company approached the state about placing a plain antenna at the site, the lighthouse keepers quickly produced an alternate plan that resulted in a $110,000 restoration of a historic water tower, with the antenna inside, said Williams, a Pebble Beach resident who is a retired professor from the Naval Postgraduate School.

Such restoration is not cheap. The volunteer organization has raised the bulk of the money to rebuild the historic barn at Point Sur for $500,000, after a 1998 storm, and to restore the carpenter's shop for another $200,000. More recent projects have included the restoration of the upper deck and lantern room of the lighthouse itself for $300,000, Williams said.

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