Stormy waters raging 'round historic beacon

Lighthouse: County officials lock horns with preservationists over an Outer Banks landmark, as the U.S. government decides who should get it.

October 06, 2003|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

COROLLA, N.C. - High above the marshy grasses of the Outer Banks, visitors linger on the black-iron deck of the 128-year-old Currituck Beach Lighthouse, snapping landscape photos of the Atlantic Ocean and Currituck Sound.

They've scaled 214 steps for this view and want to enjoy every possible angle.

"It's so peaceful up here," says Felisa Hiteshew, a resident of Columbia, Md., who is here on vacation.

Down below, not everything is so trouble-free.

As the federal government seeks to transfer up to 300 lighthouses to new owners over the next decade, an unusual battle has developed over control of the red-brick lighthouse. It has pitted a small, nonprofit group, the Outer Banks Conservationists, based in neighboring Dare County, against the tower's home county of Currituck. And it has gotten ugly, with each side slinging insults and saying the other is undeserving of the stately tourist attraction.

"Next, let's go to New York and say we're going to give the Empire State Building to Iraq," says County Commissioner Paul R. Martin, commenting on the bid by the Outer Banks group.

The transfer program got its start because the U.S. Coast Guard, increasingly preoccupied with homeland security, no longer had the time or money to care for aging lighthouses. Congress cleared the way for the transfers in 2000.

Federal officials say they push hard for cooperation when two or more parties are interested in the same lighthouse.

In Maryland, the San Francisco-based U.S. Lighthouse Society joined with Annapolis and the local Maritime Museum to apply in August for the transfer of the Thomas Point Lighthouse in the Chesapeake Bay.

A National Park Service official praised the partners for forming "an absolutely wonderful consortium." Ultimately, it is up to the secretary of the interior to approve lighthouse transfers.

The squabble in Currituck illuminates just how emotional people can get when it comes to local landmarks. Despite months of federal mediation, the sides could not find common ground.

"We would have loved, loved, to be able to forge a coalition like the one bidding for Thomas Point," says Dan Smith, a park service assistant. "But that was not to be for Currituck."

Personal ties

Two decades ago, when there wasn't even a paved road leading to the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, it seemed unlikely that it would ever become a hot property.

Hemmed in by a wildlife refuge to the north and a gated community to the south, Corolla was a desolate coastal town with just a handful of year-round residents through the 1970s and early 1980s.

The town jewel has long been the lighthouse.

In 1873, Congress ordered its construction to "illuminate a dark spot" between the Bodie Island Light south on the Outer Banks and the Cape Henry Light in Virginia Beach, Va. Two years and more than 1 million bricks later, the Currituck Light split the night sky.

Full-time lighthouse keepers were rendered unnecessary by the automation of the Currituck Light in 1939, and over the decades the grounds became so overgrown that some of the keepers' houses were hidden by the brush.

Into this wilderness rode John Wilson. In 1978, he and four college friends made a pilgrimage to the lighthouse, driving a Jeep up the sandy shoreline.

Wilson, born and raised 37 miles south of Corolla in Manteo, says he was stunned by what he saw.

The 162-foot brick tower was in disrepair, with chunks of mortar missing, windows broken and iron parts corroding.

"The lighthouse was literally falling apart," he says.

Wilson and his friends - most of them budding architects - formed the Outer Banks Conservationists and got to work, signing leases with the Coast Guard for the lighthouse keepers' houses and later for the tower, which they opened to the public in 1991.

Over the years, the group, which has grown to 4,000 members nationwide, has raised more than $6 million. About 92 percent of that money has stayed in Currituck County, Wilson says, with about $1.5 million spent to restore the lighthouse tower and $2 million more for its outbuildings.

Inside the refurbished lightkeeper's cottage, a wedding portrait of the last keeper and his wife hangs in the dining room. Homer Treadwell Austin and his wife, Orphia Midgett Austin, lived there from 1928 to 1936. They were Wilson's great-grandparents.

Fight for the light

The Currituck Light was supposed to be an example of how seamlessly the transfer process would work, Smith says with a pained laugh. "I think it was a surprise to everyone but the county that the county was interested."

Eight other lighthouses successfully changed hands under the pilot program, but all eyes seemed focused on the hubbub over the Corolla light, which was pulled from the pilot program while federal officials tried to forge a partnership between the two groups.

Many Currituck County officials and state politicians say they took it as a personal affront when the Department of the Interior gave the nonprofit group's application a higher score in April, and they immediately appealed.

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