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Finding good homes for lighthouses

Large bolts of lightning strike across the skyline north of Kenosha, Wis. and its North Pierhead lighthouse. (Bill Siel/AP)

For sale: Historic waterfront property with a spectacular, 50-foot-high view of Lake Michigan. Featuring solid, century-old cast-iron construction, painted distinctive red. Comes with its own Fresnel lens for signaling ships.

If that sounds attractive, act now: the Kenosha North Pierhead Lighthouse in Wisconsin is up for auction by the U.S. General Services Administration, but bids are due by Wednesday afternoon. If you miss the deadline, there’s still the Conneaut Harbor West Breakwater Light in Ohio, which is open for bidding until July 20.

“There’re a number of people who like to say, ‘Hey, I own a lighthouse.’ It’s good cocktail party conversation,” said John E.B. Smith, the deputy assistant commissioner for Real Property Utilization and Disposal for the GSA’s Public Building Service.

As of Sunday afternoon, after several bids early Saturday, the Kenosha lighthouse price was at $13,000, while the one at Conneaut Harbor had received one bid for $5,000.

If the price is too high, GSA is also offering 12 historic lighthouses for free, though takers must be eligible state or local entities, nonprofit corporations, historic preservation groups, or community development organizations. “The U.S. General Services Administration is looking for a few good stewards to preserve a key slice of the nation’s maritime history,” the agency said in a recent news release.

The lighthouses are being made available as part of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. The federal government owns about 250 lighthouses, which are maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard. Once critical for navigation along the nation’s coastal and inland waterways, many have been made obsolete by the advance of radio, radar and satellite navigation.

Under the terms of the legislation, if the Coast Guard decommissions a lighthouse the government tries to find a caretaker agency or buyer rather than see the structures demolished or fall apart from neglect.

“They’re in varying states of repair or disrepair,” Smith said. “They’re not cheap to maintain.”

Over the last half-dozen years, 54 lighthouses have been transferred from the federal government, including six to public agencies, 16 to local governments, three to states and 29 to non-profit organizations, according to Smith. Another 22 have been sold to the public, with prices ranging from $10,000 to $260,000.

The first choice is to find a qualified entity to take over a lighthouse. Interested parties are subjected to “a rigorous application process,” according to the GSA, including a review of whether they are able financially able to maintain a lighthouse.

The entities have responsibility for upkeep and must make the station available for education, park, recreation, cultural or historic preservation purposes to the general public.

If no takers can be found, the lighthouses are put up for public auction. “If they’re sold, a lot of the restrictions come off,” Smith said.

Buyers have included doctors, military officers, couples looking for a weekend getaway and others who want to open a bed and breakfast, according to Smith.

The GSA has a network of potential buyers, including people who have registered online and receive e-mail updates when lighthouses go on sale. Others are reached through ads in local newspapers or publications appealing to lighthouse aficionados.

The GSA Web site includes a countdown clock marking the time until the close of bidding. “Usually we see the bidding pick up” in the final days and hours before deadline, Smith said.

“Once we close, there are a number of steps to make sure [the bidders] understand what they’re in for,” he added.

The 12 lighthouses being offered for free are the Ile Aux Galetts Light, Port Austin Reef Light, and Alpena Light in Michigan; the Brandywine Shoal, Ship John Shoal and Miah Maull Shoal in New Jersey; Race Rock and Orient Point in New York; the Point Tuna Light — also known as Punta Tuna — in Puerto Rico; the Milwaukee Breakwater Lighthouse in Wisconsin; the Fowey Rocks Light in Florida; and San Pedro’s Point Fermin Light in California.

“GSA is committed to ensuring that these national beacons of light and life are transferred to new stewards dedicated to preserving their historic significance,” said David Foley, deputy commissioner of the Public Building Service.

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