- WASHINGTON POST
A Chesapeake Bay lighthouse is up for auction. So far, no one wants it.
14:33 JST, September 3, 2022
Nobody wants it.
Not the nonprofits or preservationists. Not education agencies or community development groups or fishermen or lighthouse enthusiasts.
Maybe that’s because the price tag for the Hooper Island Lighthouse is $15,000, a buyer would have to spend considerable money fixing it up, and, according to the listing, it’s in a Navy-controlled “danger area.”
There aren’t even any ghosts attached to it, says Henry Gonzalez, vice president of the U.S. Lighthouse Society. At least, none that he knows of.
“There’s nothing really that stands out a lot,” he says. “We don’t have any ghost stories, unfortunately.”
The federal government has been looking to offload the 120-year-old lighthouse from a national lighthouse society to someone – anyone – since 2017, but no one has taken the bait. So the lighthouse, affectionately called the “sparkplug” by locals, is being auctioned to the public, a move the government made only after it exhausted other options. The starting bid is $15,000.
As of Thursday – more than 20 days after the auction began – there have been no bids, said Will Powell, a spokesman for the U.S. General Services Administration. Despite the initial lack of enthusiasm, Powell added that it’s not unusual to receive last-minute bids. The auction is scheduled to close on Sept. 21.
The Hooper Island Lighthouse, built in 1902, is a working lighthouse for the U.S. Coast Guard. It’s located three to four miles west of Middle Hooper Island in Maryland’s Dorchester County. Which means that owning the lighthouse is, well, complicated.
It’s in the middle of the bay and its metal tower sits atop acylindrical platform, so there is no dock at which a boat can anchor. Instead, the owner would need to tie the boat to the lighthouse’s outer ladder and climb up amid the waves, Powell said.
There were once living quarters, but those are gone, Powell said. There’s no water, sewer, electricity or gas. The kitchen area is now empty.
And even if all those things were in place, the owner isn’t permitted to use the lighthouse as a home.
The only exemption to the overnight rule would be if the owner or a contractor is doing maintenance or rehabilitation work, Powell said, citing the memorandum of agreement between the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division of the U.S. Navy and whoever buys the property. Any proposed changes to this would need to be approved by the NAWCAD.
But staying overnight may be problematic. The interior includes hazardous materials such as lead-based paint, asbestos, benzene and a host of other dangerous compounds, according to a 2019 inspection report, which described the lighthouse as: “Fair condition but approaching poor.”
And if the owner decides to visit the place, they’re required to communicate with the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division. The lighthouse is in the northeast corner of a “surface danger zone,” meaning it’s within the test range where the NAWCAD can release nonexplosive ordinances such as practice bombs, inert missiles and rockets from an aircraft.
“It is imperative, for obvious safety reasons, that the lighthouse not be occupied whenever range operations which involve dropping non-explosive ordnance or firing inert missiles are scheduled to occur in that area of the range,” the a memorandum of agreement says.
The lighthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places, which means the new owner would be legally required to maintain the lighthouse in accordance with specific historic preservation standards. So, painting the outside some crazy color probably wouldn’t fly, since any change to the outside of the lighthouse must be approved by the Maryland Historical Trust.
The lighthouse stands in 18 feet of water and the foundation extends another 18 feet above. A four-story tower was built on top of the foundation and the focal plane, or the height of the light, is 63 feet. The National Register of Historic Places says the lighthouse has a “distinctive design and method of construction that typified lighthouse constructions on the Chesapeake Bay during the late half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”
“The Hooper Island Light Station is significant for its association with the federal governmental efforts to provide an integrated system of navigational aids and to provide for safe maritime transportation in the Chesapeake Bay, a major transportation corridor for commercial traffic,” the National Register says.
The upkeep was too daunting for the U.S. Lighthouse Society, a national organization with more than 3,000 members and the lighthouse’s current owner. The GSA is auctioning it on the organization’s behalf, Powell said.
“We started to realize as an organization, about five years after we started, that the remoteness of the lighthouse and the difficulty in getting onto the lighthouse was basically limiting our time that we had to work on the lighthouse,” Gonzalez said.
Since 2000 – the year the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act was enacted – the GSA has transferred about 148 lighthouses. That includes 82 no-cost transfers to public entities, such as nonprofit organizations, and 66 through public sales that have amassed more than $8 million.
The GSA hopes the Hooper Island listing reaches nonprofit groups or private buyers who “really like, enjoy, love, lighthouses,” Powell said. “It’s not every day that a lighthouse comes up for auction.”
Greg Krawczyk, the vice president of the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, sounds a bit wistful when he describes the potential new owner or owners.
“We really hope the new owners, whoever they are, will do a good job fixing it and making it look great again and be around for a very long time,” he said. But he cautioned that buyers should ensure they have the money to do the needed restoration work.
Charter boat captain Phil Gootee isn’t planning to put in a bid, but he hopes someone else does.
The Dorchester County native grew up fishing in the area, boating across the Honga River to the Chesapeake Bay to find redfish, sea trout, striped bass and other wildlife. He now runs a fishing charter and tour company where he leads guided lighthouse tours.
“It would be nice to see somebody fix it up because it is part of the history of the area,” Gootee said. “You go down there, you’re fishing, and you always see it when you’re coming back . . . you see that lighthouse, you’re getting closer to home.”
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