City joins coalition in bid for lighthouse

Some officials concerned about Thomas Point's costs

July 30, 2003|By Julie Bykowicz and Lynn Anderson | Julie Bykowicz and Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

With city council approval now in place, Annapolis will join six other groups pursuing ownership of the Thomas Point Lighthouse, a one-of-a-kind historic symbol of the Chesapeake Bay.

Applications for the lighthouse are due Monday, and National Park Service officials overseeing the property transfer from the Coast Guard said Annapolis and its partners stand a good chance of acquiring the 128-year-old property.

Jennifer Perunko, a contractor with the park service, said coalitions such as the one Annapolis has built tend to have an advantage in the lighthouse-acquisition process. The city's partners are the U.S. Lighthouse Society and the Annapolis Maritime Museum.

"It usually creates a stronger application, financially," she said. "And it's a plus to have a team with people with various expertise."

The park service is expected to pick an owner by October.

But some city council members have voiced concerns about the annual costs of maintaining and preserving the offshore "screw-pile" lighthouse, which gets its name from having iron beams screwed into the bay floor. Alderwomen Sheila M. Tolliver and Louise M. Hammond voted Monday night against a resolution authorizing the city to seek ownership of Thomas Point. The resolution passed 6-2.

Tolliver said yesterday that she disagrees with cost estimates provided by city staff. "[They] say the cost would be $5,000 a year at the most, but I have a hard time believing that," she said. "It costs me more to maintain my house and ... it's not sitting in the middle of the bay."

Tolliver said she has questions about how the Annapolis partnership would work. She said she felt like each partner was expecting to pay little or nothing for lighthouse upkeep, which she said was unrealistic.

Dan Smith, special assistant to the director of the National Park Service, said groups have withdrawn from the pool of applicants because they realized that Thomas Point could carry a large price tag.

"It's going to be a challenging lighthouse to outfit for the public, to say the least," he said. "You can't just walk up to it."

Thomas Point Lighthouse, 1 1/2 miles off shore from Annapolis, is accessible only by boat. Its new owner must provide public access to the lighthouse, so the city has said it might run water taxis from the maritime museum.

City officials said yesterday that they don't expect cost to be an issue. They said money to support the lighthouse could be raised through private donations, ticket sales, tour licenses and grants.

Tolliver is not convinced.

"To me, this is like a wedding proposal," she said. "And you don't propose to someone until you have tested the relationship, and we don't know anything about this relationship."

City Administrator Robert Agee said he was frustrated with Tolliver because she has misinterpreted aspects of the lighthouse deal. He said $300,000 may be spent over the next 10 years to upgrade the lighthouse - not to build a dock to make it more accessible, a statement Tolliver has made.

Agee said renovations would be paid for with donations and grants. Any money the city spends would be reimbursed by its partners, he said.

He said that without soliciting contributions, the city has $7,000 in cash (the Thomas Point Lighthouse Foundation raised the money) and $15,000 in commitments from local groups and individuals to help pay for lighthouse maintenance.

"The city doesn't anticipate any start-up money," said Agee, a member of the foundation.

A lease agreement between the city and the lighthouse society, as well as a memorandum of understanding, could be reviewed by the council in coming months, Agee said.

"This is basically the first step," said Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, who backs the lighthouse acquisition. "And it is very positive."

Moyer said she believes the city is the best protector of the lighthouse, especially given its status as a tourist destination and its long maritime history.

"Annapolis is a place to tell stories of the [Chesapeake] Bay, and the lighthouse is one of those stories," she said.

Other applicants for the lighthouse include Creative Education, an Allentown, Penn., group; Historic Place Preservation, based in Falls Church, Va.; Annapolis Young Marines; Baltimore-based Chesapeake Bay Memories Charities; the Chesapeake Bay Foundation; and the Towson-based Injured Workers Insurance Fund.

Federal officials have overseen the transfer of six other lighthouses through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000.

Thomas Point and Craighill Channel Lower Range Front Light, a steel-and-concrete building off the Baltimore County coast, are the first two Maryland lighthouses eligible for transfers.

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