Let the Buyer Be Bold

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 23, 2007

Point No Point, as it's called, is not the type of lighthouse that's featured on postcards, towering nobly over surging waves, surrounded by rocky cliffs and billowing clouds. As a piece of real estate, this one is definitely a fixer-upper.

A century's worth of seagull droppings coats the roof. There are no utilities, just an outhouse hanging off the edge of a deck about a story above sea level.

Complicating matters for any would-be owner is that Point No Point Lighthouse is not accessible by road or even located on land. It rises stubbily out of the Chesapeake Bay more than two nautical miles from the Southern Maryland shore.

So it was that on a recent chilly morning, after the federal government decided to sell the 102-year-old lighthouse, nine prospective buyers gathered at a dock in St. Mary's County. For some, it was their second attempt at a viewing; an open house last month was canceled because of high seas. To see the lighthouse, prospective buyers had to pay a refundable deposit of $10,000.

They strapped on life jackets, climbed aboard two U.S. Coast Guard boats and headed into the bay, water spraying as a crane feeding near the shore faded to a speck and disappeared.

"There it is," passenger Kay Burrell said as Point No Point appeared in the distance, looking like a giant buoy. This, she had been thinking, could be a project for her and her husband, Tom, now that the kids are in college.

As the lighthouse neared, it became clear how much of a project it would be. Before setting foot on Point No Point, passengers were reminded not to lean against railings and were told that they were entering at their own risk.

Then they stepped from the bow of their vessel onto a metal ladder attached to the brick caisson. Some were unsteady, gripping Coast Guard members, white-knuckled and attuned to the ladder's sway.

On the deck, some took a moment to soak in the scenery -- the dark waters, the big sky. Others pushed open the unlocked door and ventured inside, greeted by a musty smell that suggested old dust and salty air.

The potential buyers rushed up and down the spiral staircase: up to the second floor to see what could be used as two bedrooms and two dressing rooms, up to the third floor to see an open space, down to a basement where they found elaborate brickwork, then all the way up to the solar-operated light, which comes on at dusk.

Bidders have offered as much as $135,000 in an online auction that opened in late September. The auction has been temporarily suspended because the lighthouse serves as a boundary marker for a restricted area as defined by the Navy, and additional deed restrictions might be required.

Point No Point is one of 30 Chesapeake Bay lighthouses that the federal government is selling. Last year, two similar beacons, the Baltimore Harbor Lighthouse and Sandy Point Shoal, sold for $260,000 and $250,000, respectively.

In 2000, Congress authorized the sale of historic lighthouses at auctions. Local governments and nonprofit groups are given a chance to buy the lighthouses first; none expressed interest in Point No Point. The U.S. General Services Administration promises a three-day notice before it closes the auction for Point No Point.

There are strings attached. The successful bidder must be prepared for the U.S. Coast Guard to drop in anytime to check the light and foghorn, and the winner must maintain the lighthouse, particularly the ladder, so that it can function. Because Point No Point is a historic landmark, improvements must meet certain standards -- meaning, among other things, that an owner better think twice before installing a satellite T.V.

Even so, some members of a local lighthouse group say they worry that buyers will purchase a lighthouse on a whim and not be aware of the work and money required to maintain it.

"You don't necessarily know the intentions of those buying it," said Anne Puppa, president of the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society. "It's a shame they are going so fast. We don't know where they are going to end up down the road."

Prospective buyers say their intentions are good.

There are historians, such as Ron Riedinger of Martinsburg, W.Va., who know that the lighthouse floated down the bay not once but twice while it was being built during the early 1900s.

There are designers, such as Dan Moore and his partner, Shawn Cox, who want to use industrial and raw materials that are green-friendly but would also like to add a generator to keep beer cold.

There are environmentalists, such as the Burrells, who are looking for a weekend place where they can harness wind, tide and solar power.

There are entrepreneurs, such as Robert Smith and Rich Wilson, fishermen who want to convert the lighthouse into a bed-and-breakfast. "Picture this: A couple gets married in the lighthouse. Then they have their honeymoon there," said Smith, who lives in Ridge. "How romantic is that?"

Very romantic, until another possible buyer reminds them of the foghorn that sounds every few seconds on misty nights, so loudly that it can be heard on shore.

Broken windows, peeling paint, splintering floorboards -- there are plenty of reasons not to buy Point No Point. But as the Coast Guard boats motored back to shore that day, some of the passengers, watching as the lighthouse faded into the distance, saw a vision fit for a postcard.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company