Soaring 162 feet above a strip of northern Outer Banks marshland that runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Currituck Sound, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse seems a world away from the culture wars of Washington, D.C.
Sheltered by plantings of native red cedars, oaks, pines and wax myrtles, the 128-year-old light even manages to seem distant from the private subdivisions and sprawling, upscale vacation homes that line busy Highway 12 through Corolla just a few hundred yards away.
The beacon’s many visitors, eager for a view of the water and the huge Fresnel lens in the central lantern tower, often lapse into respectful silence as they begin the spiraling, 214-step climb to the top. Up on the iron deck of the light it’s mostly quiet, save for the rush of wind and the occasional cry of a gull.
But for the past two years it’s been anything but quiet down below, as a pitched battle has raged over ownership of the historic light, the last major brick lighthouse built on the Outer Banks. From the start, that battle has been largely a crusade by one man–ultra-conservative North Carolina Congressman Walter B. Jones–who was determined to use any means to sink the bid of a respected conservationist group that had saved the decaying light in favor of Currituck County and its commissioners’ plans for a pricey tourist attraction.
The lighthouse was owned by the U.S. Coast Guard, which, as technology diminished the role lighthouses play in navigation, has been looking for new owners to maintain historic beacons. When Currituck’s lighthouse was declared government surplus, the Manteo-based Outer Banks Conservationists (OBC) and the county both applied to the federal government to become caretaker.
Republican Jones–the author of “freedom fries” legislation and a more recent bill aimed at ending “liberal bias” on public college campuses–immediately jumped in on the county’s side, bringing all his political resources to bear. He has painted the conservationists–the group that has been maintaining it for the past 13 years–as an outside organization with “liberal” backers and demanded inquiries by the Department of Homeland Security and even the White House.
His exhortations have found a receptive audience in Currituck, where county commissioners have been eager to transform the lighthouse site into a theme park. County leaders enthusiastically took up the cause, purchasing TV ads and a Web site under the banner of “Save Our Light.” Patriotism has been invoked (one county commissioner asserted that giving the lighthouse to the nonprofit was akin to giving the Empire State building to Iraq), as has party loyalty.
“After all of the public effort by you and Walter Jones,” wrote Currituck Republican Party Chairman Jim Edsall in a July e-mail to county leaders, “if the lighthouse is not given to Currituck County, it will call into question the effectiveness of our party.”
The flag-waving has played well in a conservative county that’s been overrun in the past two decades by wealthy newcomers who have built up the tax base while eroding community traditions. But it has also obscured important questions about the future of historic landmarks in what is now the fastest-growing part of the Outer Banks.
Last month, after a lengthy appeals process and a series of delays orchestrated by Jones, the nonprofit was finally awarded the deed to the lighthouse. Yet the impact of his political meddling still registers aftershocks.
For John Wilson, an architect and just-elected mayor of Manteo who founded the conservationist group two decades ago, the culture war analogy is apt.
“It became like Whitewater,” he says of their experience over the past two years. “We were never sure what would happen next.”
Matters of principle
Sandy Semans is managing editor of the Outer Banks Sentinel, which has done the most in-depth reporting on the lighthouse fight. When asked what she thinks the story is about, she doesn’t mince words: “It’s about the abuse of power and circumventing the laws.”
In her view, the heart of the matter is how Jones transformed a process that was designed to be free of politics into a no-holds-barred political campaign.
That’s not the story that Semans, a seasoned journalist with an air of Lois-Lane-style glamour about her, was expecting to report when she began covering the Coast Guard’s plans to turn over historic lighthouses to interested groups. Under terms of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000–which Jones backed–applications would be accepted from both public and private organizations, and decisions on ownership would be made by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
In August 2001, when Currituck’s lighthouse became available for new owners, the county, the Outer Banks Conservationists (OBC) and the state of North Carolina all voiced intentions to apply for the deed. But before any papers could be filed, Jones quietly submitted legislation that would have given the beacon to the county outright. His measure, two sentences attached to a September 2002 natural resources bill, failed–largely because it caught the attention of lighthouse preservation advocates around the country who bombarded their representatives with outraged calls and e-mails.
Semans was amazed that Jones, a co-sponsor of the original lighthouse act, would seek to undermine a process he helped put into place. “I’ve never seen anyone misuse their power the way Jones has, or abuse their constituents the way he has,” she says.
As the review went forward, the congressman called for added investigations by government agencies and, when the lighthouse was formally awarded to OBC, pressed the Department of the Interior to delay issuing the deed. He even convinced a powerful committee to solicit a probe by the Department of Homeland Security.
Jones isn’t the only politician to have weighed in on the issue. Early on, the governor took OBC’s side, while state Rep. Bill Owens (D-Pasquotank) and Sen. Mark Basnight (D-Dare) took the county’s. But no one has stayed as intimately involved for as long as Jones.
“It’s become an obsession,” Semans says. “I can understand him giving an ear to Currituck County. But at some point, he had an obligation to be a leader and step back and let the process take its course. By his involvement, there has been such ill will created, I don’t know if this will ever be healed.” The Sentinel has called for a House ethics investigation into Jones’ actions in the lighthouse fight.
The congressman insists his efforts on behalf of the county are a matter of principle. “A lighthouse located in Currituck County should belong to the county. That’s it,” Jones says.
And he’s unrepentant about his role in the dispute. In fact, Jones maintains it’s the other side that’s guilty of political maneuvering. “The state of North Carolina and the liberal element of Raleigh had already decided this one,” he says. He also accuses “holdovers from the Clinton administration” of favoring the nonprofit. “The bureaucrats had pretty well influenced [U.S. Secretary of the Interior] Gale Norton on behalf of the Outer Banks Conservationists. If everything had been equal and they’d decided to go with OBC that would be one thing. But from day one, this was a stacked deck.”
Over time, the congressman’s focus has shifted from the review process to OBC’s finances. He claims–despite a green light from two federal agencies–that the nonprofit’s lease with the Coast Guard has not been properly enforced, allowing the group to hold onto funds that should have gone to the government. As a result of Jones’ quest, the deed issued Oct. 17 requires OBC to pay for and submit a government audit, and put in escrow $180,000 raised but not yet spent for lighthouse restoration while the Department of Homeland Security determines if any of that money should be returned.
“Have you seen the contract?” Jones asks, a note of triumph registering even over the telephone. “They’re going to owe the taxpayers some money.”
While it’s a bit early to draw that conclusion, Currituck’s lighthouse keepers say the hold on their funds may well halt maintenance work scheduled for this winter. “We’ve got contracts signed so we’ll just have to find the money somewhere,” says Jenn Barr, who, along with her husband John Birkholz, moved from Chapel Hill last year to go to work for OBC as the lighthouse’s keepers. “At least now we don’t have to worry about whether we have to leave.”
What worries historic preservation advocates most is that political wrangling over the Currituck light will harm efforts to save other aging towers. Encumbering monies saved up for restoration could have especially serious consequences, says Tim Harrison, president of the Maine-based American Lighthouse Foundation, which has been closely following the situation in Currituck.
“These things take tens of thousands of dollars a year to maintain and most people hold those funds over from year to year,” he says. “If the government now says we have to turn that money back over to them–money we’ve saved up until the transfer–what’s going to happen to all the lighthouses we’re trying to save?”
From public nuisance to public draw
No one was talking about saving Currituck’s lighthouse when John Wilson paid a visit back in 1978. In fact, the keeper’s house had been neglected for so long, the county had asked the state to burn it down as a public nuisance.
At that time, there were no paved roads in Corolla and the place was populated mainly by deer and wild horses. Wilson and a group of friends from George Washington University, where he was studying for a master’s degree in historic preservation, had to drive their Jeep up the beach to see the tower.
Growing up in neighboring Dare County, Wilson had been to the lighthouse numerous times as a child. His great-grandparents, Homer Treadwell and Orphia Midgett Austin, were lighthouse keepers there from 1928 to 1936. (Their wedding picture, with Orphia in a parrot-wing hat and Homer in a navy blue uniform, now hangs in the dining room of the refurbished keeper’s quarters.)
His memories hadn’t prepared Wilson for what he found that day. Chunks of the brick tower–which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places–were crumbling or missing. “Every window was gone and there were huge holes in the roof” of the Victorian, stick-style keeper’s house, he recalls. “You couldn’t even see the double keeper’s quarters because it was covered with vines. That place was falling apart.”
Armed with what he’d learned at the university about national landmarks, Wilson traveled to Raleigh to urge the state Wildlife Commission–which had been given the surrounding 30 acres for “muskrat research”–to restore the site.
“I went to one of their meetings and reminded them they had a historic property that needed to be protected,” says Wilson, who has the ocean-blue eyes of many Outer Banks natives. “They looked at me like I was from Mars. I went back three times and finally, one of the old men leaned back in his chair and said, ‘If you promise never, ever to come back again, we’ll give that lighthouse to you.’”
From there, Wilson founded the Outer Banks Conservationists, whose first project became rescuing the keeper’s quarters from its haunted-house state. Working three weekends a month, volunteers cleared vines, removed old paint, uncovered brick walkways and raised $2.5 million in private funds to restore the building and other structures on the site.
“There were lots of tics, deer flies and humidity,” recalls Bill Parker, an early member of the nonprofit who now serves as the group’s chairman. “It was fun!”
In 1980, OBC signed a 50-year lease for the property with the state of North Carolina. Eventually, the nonprofit signed a lease with the Coast Guard for the brick tower and began renovations there, as well. In 1990, the light was opened for the first time to the public.
Over the past 13 years, Wilson’s group has raised more than $4 million for restoration, operation and maintenance of the lighthouse complex. The site now draws 150,000 visitors a year and generates close to $500,000 from a $6 entrance and climbing fee. Currituck County residents are admitted free.
Recreation vs. preservation
OBC’s track record and its longtime working relationship with the state were the reasons the National Park Service initially saw Currituck’s lighthouse as a poster child for the historic lighthouse act. In 2001, the light was selected to be part of a pilot project for transfers under the new law.
But things didn’t go as smoothly as federal officials hoped. “We thought this was going to be one of the 10 easy ones,” says Dan Smith, a former Cary resident who is now special assistant to the director of the National Park Service in charge of lighthouses. “We soon found that wasn’t the case.”
One complicating factor was the nature of Currituck’s lighthouse site, which consists of three separately managed and owned properties. The federally-owned lighthouse footprint is the smallest parcel, consisting of less than an acre. Surrounding that is the nearly 3-acre keeper’s compound, which is state property leased to OBC. And surrounding that is a 30-acre site also owned by the state that’s managed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
Another key piece of the puzzle is a neighboring complex owned by the county. The current centerpiece of the county’s emerging “Currituck Heritage Park,” just a short walk from the lighthouse, is the Whalehead Club. The county restored the 1920s-era hunting lodge with funds from a new occupancy tax and opened it to the public in 1999.
Expanding the park to include the lighthouse has been a cornerstone of the county’s ownership bid for the tower. “We’d had an interest in it for some time,” says County Manager Dan Scanlon. “We’d always thought of it as an integral piece in our plans for the heritage park.”
Unlike in previous decades, when money for restoration projects was nonexistent in Currituck, a population boom over the past decade–especially on the beach side–has the county feeling flush. Currituck officials are eager to enlarge the park to attract more visitors. Plans are to have a single entrance fee of $17 cover admission to the Whalehead Club, a state wildlife education center now under construction, and the lighthouse buildings–including the keeper’s house, which the county has vowed to open for tours. County leaders also want to add a passenger ferry between the lighthouse site and the mainland.
Given the proximity of all these projects, federal officials had hoped the parties could cooperate on a single lighthouse application. What they didn’t realize is that the lighthouse tract had been a tug-of-war between OBC and the county for years.
Back in the 1980s, OBC successfully fought efforts by the county to widen Village Road, a right-of-way that bisects the larger lighthouse property. More recently, the county has been lobbying for a paved oceanfront parking lot, bathhouses and public toilets on the undeveloped portion of the lighthouse tract–a plan state preservation leaders and the nonprofit say will harm one of the few remaining wild areas on the beach.
Beach access is a closely watched issue in Currituck. Not only is development continuing at breakneck speed, but a five-year-old lawsuit filed by residents of the private Whalehead subdivision in Corolla has kept the topic alive. The residents, who want to close beach access and public parking in their neighborhood, sued the county and the state. While a judge recently ruled against them, some have vowed to keep fighting. (U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has a house there, though he’s not part of the suit).
County commissioners deny the Whalehead lawsuit has anything to do with their plans for the lighthouse tract. But Wilson, OBC’s founder, sees a clear connection.
“The county wants to move the parking lots and bathhouses to the oceanfront and allow Scalia’s neighborhood to become gated,” he says. “Their [lighthouse] application tells the story. Ultimately, they want the whole 30 acres to be adjoined with the Whalehead Club. They see it as an economic development tool, a way to make money.”
County leaders insist their real interest in the lighthouse is historical, not financial. “It’s not about money, it’s about our heritage,” says Commission Chair Paul O’Neal, a tall man with a neat goatee whose great-grandfather helped build the light.
But the county’s application is vague when it comes to how the three properties will one day be merged into a “seamless” heritage park–an issue that struck federal officials who reviewed the competing plans. Reviewers also worried that the county’s vow to keep the lighthouse open all year would preclude proper maintenance on the tower. “The county never addressed the lighthouse as a lighthouse,” says Dan Smith of the park service. “It was always just a feature of their larger Whalehead project.”
Lloyd Childers, who worked as keeper of the restored lighthouse until she moved to Hampstead near Wilmington last year, sums it up this way: “Our goals for that site were always vastly different,” she says. “If the county had been able to extend their park to the lighthouse, we would have lost what’s unique about it.”
Ultimately, she says, money was less a motivation for the county than a twisted form of civic pride. “The county was jealous,” Childers says, “jealous that somebody else had the foresight to get the lease for the light when all the time they were nowhere to be seen.”
A meeting at the Whalehead Club
By the spring of 2002, park service officials had pulled the Currituck lighthouse from their pilot project, still hoping for of a single application. So when county leaders called a meeting with OCB and state officials at the Whalehead Club to discuss a plan for joint operations at the lighthouse, Smith and others were optimistic.
But the county’s proposal turned out to be a plan for phasing out OBC after a two-year period during which the group would be allowed to continue collecting lighthouse fees. After that, the Whalehead Preservation Trust, the board that manages the restored hunting lodge, would be given responsibility for fund raising and operations at what would then be a county-owned light.
Getting OBC to agree to bow out wasn’t the only item on the county’s agenda. At numerous points during the April meeting, county leaders also pressed for detailed financial information from the nonprofit.
Commissioners Chair O’Neal says the county was keen to know how lighthouse fees were being spent. “We were concerned about the hundreds upon hundreds of thousands they collect in Currituck, then take out of the county,” he says–a charge repeated in Jones’ push for federal investigations of OBC’s lease with the Coast Guard.
It’s true that half of the $6 fee OBC charges lighthouse visitors is used for other restoration projects under the nonprofit’s umbrella–an arrangement the Coast Guard approved. But as of June 30, 2001, the last time figures were calculated, 92 percent of all funds raised were going to projects in Currituck.
Since county leaders had never before expressed interest in lighthouse fees, OBC leaders were convinced that what they were really after was information that could boost Currituck’s application should the two sides remain competitors. “They didn’t just want the IRS information, they appeared to be wanting all of our budgets,” says OBC board member Jane Preyer, a Chapel Hill resident and southeast regional director for the nonprofit group, Environmental Defense. “If we gave them all that, they could put it in their application as if they knew what was going on at the lighthouse. It made us very cautious.”
As the meeting went on, things got even less comfortable.
Lisbeth Evans, state Secretary of Cultural Resources, was blunt about her feelings on county ownership of the light: “Historic properties are better maintained by state or federal agencies,” she said, because when budgets get tight, counties will cut preservation projects before schools or social services.
County supporters were no less direct about how they viewed the nonprofit’s ownership bid. Said George “Buck” Thornton III, a Corolla developer and head of the Whalehead Trust, “This is Currituck property being run by Dare County people. That doesn’t work.”
By the meeting’s end, Smith realized that the lighthouse debate had become a zero-sum game. “I looked at those people and said, from here on out, half of you are going to be pleased with what happens and half of you will be sad,” he recalls. “It’s going to come down to a winner and a loser.”
Still, one more try for a single application was made. On April 25, OBC and the state presented a plan under which the lighthouse and the surrounding 30 acres would be managed by a board with equal representation from all three interested parties. But because the proposal called for the deed itself to go to the nonprofit and the state, the county rejected it.
A “star pupil” or a liberal conspiracy?
By February, 2003, the state had dropped out and the competition had narrowed to the county versus OBC. (As Evans says, “I really didn’t need that many wrought iron stairs to worry about.”) Applications submitted to the National Park Service that month reflected the growing rivalry between the two sides.
OBC’s entry made note of the county’s poor preservation record at sites such as Monkey Island, a spot in Currituck Sound that was once home to a burial ground for the Pamunkey Indian tribe. The county had to return it to the federal government in 1998 after failing to restore it.
The county’s application portrayed the nonprofit as a bunch of elitists with no commitment to public access at the light. “Who better to direct and manage the use of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse than those within its own community,” the submission read, “rather than a closed private nonprofit organization located over 100 miles away.” (Manteo is about 40 miles from the lighthouse.)
On March 20, a four-member park service panel released its recommendation–and it was a slam dunk for OBC. The conservationist group scored 97 out of a possible 100 points on its plan for the light. The county scored 33.
County officials immediately condemned the decision as “defective, if not biased” because it failed to acknowledge Currituck’s financial strength and its plans to open more of the lighthouse complex to the public. As evidence of a clear slant toward the nonprofit, their appeal cites a series of e-mails between state preservation officials and the National Park Service which note that, “given OBC’s track record,” the park service would be likely to recommend it as the new owner if it applied along with the state.
OBC’s leaders say there’s nothing wrong with having a track record or allies in government.
“It’s sort of like a teacher putting forth a star pupil,” says Parker, the nonprofit’s chairman. “Yes, absolutely we’ve worked closely with the state for all these years. It’s a partnership. And it’s worked very well.”
Advice the county was getting from allies of its own may well have colored its view of the park service’s decision. One of them was John Schrote, a retired Department of the Interior official who now lives in Corolla and sits on Currituck’s economic development advisory board. Schrote, who attended the Whalehead meeting and helped the county with its appeals to government officials, still blames what he calls “the mindset of the park service” for how the lighthouse decision came out. “I have watched the park service as they have become really, advocates of the Greenpeace movement,” he says. “The whole agency is just embedded with environmental extremists.”
And, of course there was Jones, whom county leaders had approached for help on the lighthouse as far back as November 2001. “The bureaucrats in those mid-level positions at Interior are very liberal,” the congressman says. “Most of the board of OBC is liberal, too. This was a done deal.”
While the county’s appeal was being heard, federal officials tried once again to foster cooperation from the two sides. But by that time, distrust ran too deep. The county refused to meet if state representatives were present; the nonprofit refused to meet if they were absent.
Meanwhile, the fight for the light went public, with TV ads, online petitions, polls and other appeals for citizen support. Facts weren’t always central to those appeals and the currents of anger they stirred up began to spill over into other local issues.
Stephen Smith, a Raleigh attorney who produced a report for the state on the county’s bathhouse proposals, says the lighthouse remains a contentious backdrop to ongoing discussions about beach access and the oceanfront.
His report describes a “mentality of internecine warfare” and “crippling resentment and distrust among many of the individuals and institutions interested in this property.”
To this day, Smith says he doesn’t understand the “oft-stated concern that Dare County people were controlling Currituck property” at the lighthouse. “I understand the point,” he says. “I just don’t understand the source of this very strong emotion when that point was made over and over again.”
On the county seal
For that, you have to drive across the sound to Currituck’s mainland. On this side of the Wright Memorial Bridge, it’s more weathered and less manicured than along the beach. There are more trailer parks than gated subdivisions; more farmers’ markets than gourmet shops; more signs for used cars and fireworks than surfboards and suntan oil.
From here, the lighthouse is a mere shape in the distance. But at county headquarters more than 30 miles up the mainland, the beacon looms proudly on the county seal, which shows the distinctive red tower and a water bird in flight. (In the aftermath of the lighthouse fight, the county unveiled a new logo with two geese and a moon in the background. But the brick beacon will stay on the county seal and all formal correspondence.)
In the days before there was a road or a bridge to the beach side, county residents used to row their boats over to the light for church picnics and other get-togethers, says county historian Barbara Snowden, a local high school teacher and member of the Whalehead Trust. “The families were all connected, all the fishermen and farmers,” she says. “The lighthouse has always been an important symbol.”
Established in 1668, Currituck County is older than the state–or the nation, for that matter. At one time, Snowden says, it was the seat of power in northeastern North Carolina before bits of it were carved off to form neighboring Dare, Hyde and Tyrell counties.
For most of its modern life, Currituck has been an isolated, rural outpost. But over the past decade or more, change has blown in like hurricane-force winds. In the mid-1980s, roads opened the beach side to tourism and a wealthy, Yankee invasion that has swelled county coffers (some 60 percent of Currituck’s $2 billion tax base comes from expensive housing developments in towns like Duck and Corolla). Now, the mainland is poised for a second wave of newcomers fleeing rising home prices and crowded roads in Norfolk and Virginia Beach.
Longtime residents say the changes have been hard to accept. Which is one reason why calls to protect the landmark light from “outside” ownership resonate so deeply.
“Speaking as a native, the lighthouse was what we saw across the sound. Growing up, it was kind of like the Wright Brothers monument,” says Penny Leary-Smith, director of the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center in South Mills near the Virginia line. “I’ve looked at it like it belongs to everyone as a public thing.”
Besides an impending sense of loss, a sense of historical grievance fuels opinions about the lighthouse.
When asked why Currituck was willing to let Jones overturn a legal process in order to guarantee county ownership of the beacon, O’Neal, who’s a fourth generation resident of the mainland, says, “Because we wanted justice.”
In taking the county’s side in the lighthouse fight, Jones has stoked local passions by depicting OBC and its supporters as outlanders–“liberal” Democrats from another county who are aligned with “faceless bureaucrats” in Raleigh and Washington. At the same time, he’s held up comforting, conservative values like local control and financial accountability as ideals worth bending the rules for.
The county is fertile ground for such appeals. As one local newspaper editor confides, the mainland is “a pretty conservative area. A lot of the new blood is ex-military. A lot of the old blood is independent farmers. Most of them are going to agree right down the line on a lot of the angry tone” on the lighthouse.
Seen from this angle, the congressman’s long involvement in the lighthouse fight is clear cut. For Jones, conservative county leaders are the true “public entity,” the ones, as he says, with “a compelling story to tell.”
The White House and the lighthouse
In July, when the Department of the Interior rejected the county’s appeal in favor of OBC, many observers assumed the lighthouse fight was finished. The News & Observer ran a short piece noting that the “ruling likely ends a contentious battle between the nonprofit and Currituck County.”
That conclusion was reasonable, given the substance of the July 30 decision by Craig Manson, assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks. Although the county’s plans may have been “adequate,” in every area the nonprofit had clearly proved it was the “best steward” of the light, Manson ruled.
But as it turned out, the months following that decision saw the most intense politicking on the lighthouse. The stepped-up efforts actually began while the appeal was still in play, when Congressman Jones asked the White House Council on Environmental Quality to look into the matter.
Dana Perino, a spokeswoman for the council, says the White House group “has always tried to work to see that collaboration and cooperation are key. That’s part of what President Bush advises us to do.” She says Manson asked the council to step in and help broker a cooperative solution while he allowed the appeals clock to run past the required 45 days. But according to Manson’s staff and others in the Department of the Interior, it was Jones who brought the issue to Pennsylvania Avenue.
A confidential memo from Currituck County’s attorney shows the White House was part of the county’s lighthouse strategy. The June 26 memo, which explores whether Currituck should file suit if its appeal failed (the attorney recommends against court action) notes that “the Whitehouse got involved once it learned that Judge Manson was prepared to rule in favor of Outer Banks.” The memo describes the council as “an avenue for political involvement in what could otherwise be a purely bureaucratic measure.” But it also warns that, “it is highly questionable as to whether the Whitehouse is willing to spend political capital on our lighthouse.”
On Aug. 1, Secretary Norton authorized the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) to transfer the lighthouse deed to OBC. But for weeks, it sat on a desk in a government office.
Smith says the document was ready to go that first week of August when a call from Jones stopped it. “The Atlanta office got a call from D.C. because Jones had contacted the administrator to put a hold on it,” he says. “We missed it by an hour.”
A July 30 letter from the congressman to the GSA spells out his reasons for seeking a delay. In it, Jones refers to a Coast Guard report that he and fellow Republican House member Richard Pombo of California–who chairs the House Resources Committee–had asked for on OBC’s fee-collection practices.
“All Chairman Pombo and I are asking of [GSA] Administrator Perry is to refrain from signing the deed… until the U.S. Coast Guard completes its investigation of OBC,” Jones writes. That same day, Jones fired off a press release calling Norton’s decision to issue the deed “reckless” and “shocking” in the absence of the Coast Guard’s report.
When it was completed on Aug. 25, the report gave OBC a clean bill of health. The Coast Guard found there had been “no license violation” in the way fees were collected and that “all revenues that accrued to the Lighthouse account were either used for purposes allowed in the agreement or held for future restoration or repair.”
Still, thanks to Jones, the deed was not released. David Safavian, chief of staff at the GSA who met with the congressman to hear his concerns, says Jones was “just tenacious,” calling officials numerous times to make his case against OBC. Safavian says since Jones made “credible allegations” about OBC’s finances, the agency chose to wait on releasing the deed.
A picture taken in OBC’s Manteo office captures the mood of nonprofit leaders at this time. It shows a framed painting of the handsome brick lighthouse shrouded in a black veil. Even some of those who had backed the county’s ownership bid were growing tired of the struggle.
“At that point we diverged from the county,” says John Snowden, III, publisher of The Currituck Independent and owner of the “Save our Light” Web site. “After the OBC proved to be accountable by the Coast Guard, it seems like the county had backed themselves into a corner and there was no way for them to admit defeat. I think local politics has spawned all this.”
County officials certainly weren’t sitting idle. On Aug. 13, Commissioner Paul Martin wrote a letter to Jones suggesting the congressman call for an Internal Revenue Service review of the nonprofit’s finances. Martin’s letter lists 19 areas such a review could touch on, from “whether OBC earnings benefit its board of directors, their families and other disqualified persons,” to “whether OBC grants are awarded under an objective, nondiscriminatory procedure.”
His colleague, O’Neal, was busy mining local and state Republican support for the county’s cause. A July 24 e-mail from Currituck GOP Chair Jim Edsall shows party leaders were more than willing to help.
“Has the decision been made to deed the Currituck Lighthouse to Outer Banks Conservationists,” Edsall asked, “or is there still time for NCGOP to try to intervene and to try to get the White House to intervene?”
O’Neal is unapologetic about such partisan calls-to-action. “I was using all my assets,” he says. “It’s no different from OBC using left-wing groups like the Sierra Club to send e-mails to their people.”
Political rallying was followed by personal attacks. OBC leaders were accused of stealing artifacts from the Whalehead Club and holding wild parties at the lighthouse keeper’s quarters.
Those tactics didn’t sit well with many community leaders–even many who had backed the county.
“I was not happy with the continued accusations and innuendoes that came from this board,” says Ernie Bowden, a local rancher and 20-year veteran of the county commission. “I don’t agree with that kind of vindictiveness.”
Bowden, who voted for the county’s initial ownership bid, publicly disputed the accusations of stealing and has recently asked for an accounting of how much Currituck has spent on its lighthouse campaign.
The deed is
The Coast Guard report was finally made public Sept. 5, but it did nothing to free up the hold on the lighthouse deed.
“It was like a chess game,” Smith says, “Someone was always parrying our every move.”
That someone was Jones, who asked U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), head of the House Government Reform Committee, to secure yet another investigation of OBC’s lease with the Coast Guard–this time by the Department of Homeland Security. Davis’ request came in a Sept. 11 letter to Clark Kent Ervin, acting inspector general of the agency, asking DHS to look at OBC’s use of lighthouse fees.
Finally, as September wore on and there was still no movement on the paperwork, the nonprofit began to fight back. Its attorneys notified the GSA that the group intended to file suit against the agency for failing to convey the lighthouse deed.
On Oct. 6, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif), the ranking minority member of the House reform committee, wrote a letter to the GSA questioning whether it had the legal authority to delay any longer.
“I want to make sure you know,” Waxman wrote, “that the financial questions raised by Rep. Davis already have been investigated” by the Coast Guard and as part of the application process. “It is critical that the statutory process established by the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 be followed.”
Safavian won’t say whether it was Waxman’s letter that finally shook things loose. What he does say is that GSA “worked out a deal to see that the taxpayers were protected and the amount [of OBC money] that Homeland Security had indicated in its preliminary findings” might be in question would be put in escrow.
Early on the morning of Oct. 17, Wilson got a call from his attorney that the lighthouse deed was ready to go at a GSA regional office in Atlanta. He flew roundtrip from Norfolk to pick it up and by 3:42 p.m., he and Bill Parker were climbing the low steps of the new Currituck courthouse with the document in hand.
Sandy Semans was there, too, having stopped the presses and raced up the county from Nags Head in order to get this key chapter of the lighthouse story on the front page of the next Sentinel.
“This is the first time a [Currituck] register of deeds has conveyed title to a lighthouse,” she said, as she snapped a photo of the two men handing over the $47 filing fee.
“There’s your receipt,” said Charlene Dowdy, the snowy-haired official, looking up from her computer. “Is your address still correct?”
The headline in that Sunday’s Sentinel read, “The deed is done.”
In recent weeks, it’s been a lot quieter in Currituck. Despite threats about zoning permits, there’s been no contact between the county and OBC and no outward signs that anything has changed at the lighthouse.
OBC’s members have been low-key about their victory. There have been no ribbon-cutting ceremonies or celebrations at the light. One exception was the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society dinner held in Nags Head the day after the deed was transferred. The crowd of men with salt-and-pepper beards and women with mermaidy hair clapped wildly as it was announced from the podium that the two-year battle over the brick tower had ended.
Bruce Roberts, the society’s co-founder, says many in the national lighthouse community remain anxious about what Currituck’s lighthouse fight will mean for more than 200 other beacons that are about to become U.S. government surplus.
By giving nonprofits equal footing with government agencies, the national lighthouse act seemed to acknowledge the benefits of having groups whose missions stress education and preservation in charge of national landmarks. But Roberts wonders whether other nonprofits will be willing to risk being treated as OBC has.
“The situation in Currituck was disturbing from the standpoint of someone who has been awarded a lighthouse like a foster child and then someone tries to come in and give that child to someone else,” he says. “It didn’t seem fair.”
Lighthouse aficionados have good reason for concern. Safavian says the GSA is looking at amending the lighthouse act so that there’s more time to investigate potential new owners and “give the GSA an opportunity to make sure all accounts are squared.”
Locally, county leaders have seized on restrictions in the deed as reasons to continue their quest for ownership of the lighthouse. “It’s not free and clear. The process isn’t over,” says O’Neal. “When the process is over, the county will accept the final verdict.”
County commissioners have vowed to strictly enforce zoning rules on parking and restrooms now that the light is no longer on federal property. (“What will they do about height restrictions?” one local observer quips.)
Sadly, what’s still not being talked about is what happens now at the lighthouse site. Is there a commitment to making the whole area a historic district? What can be done to protect a treasured public landmark that’s surrounded by burgeoning development?
There are reasons for hope and not surprisingly, they don’t lie with politicians.
Mary Kay Umberger, who owns the Dolphin’s Watch gallery across from the new Food Lion shopping center in Corolla, says most citizens are ready to shift into more constructive gear.
“That lighthouse will be there no matter who owns it,” she says. “I think there was a little bit of a stubborn streak, but now I think people will get together on it.”
Miles away, outside the post office in Grandy on the mainland, retiree Marlee Dozier says much the same thing.
“For the longest time I thought we should just own the lighthouse outright. But then we’ve got to give them [OBC] credit for stepping in when our folks wouldn’t take care of it.” Dozier says. “We’re trying to be progressive–look at the big picture. There’s just so many people here who don’t like change.”
Location: 34 miles south of the Cape Henry Lighthouse and 32.5 miles north-northwest of the Bodie Island Lighthouse on the Outer Banks
Height: 162 feet
Diameter at base: 28 feet
Number of bricks: Approximately 1 million
Number of steps to the top: 214
Signature signal: A 20-second flash cycle that is on for three seconds, off for 17. Distance signal can be seen: 18 nautical miles
Hours of operation: Daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Easter through Thanksgiving. (252) 453-4939.
History: Opened in 1875 to fill the remaining dark spot on the North Carolina coast between the Cape Henry and Bodie Island lights. The original source of light was a mineral oil lamp with five concentric wicks. The light became automated in 1939 when the U.S. Coast Guard assumed responsibility for operations. It went through a period of neglect and decay until 1980, when the nonprofit Outer Banks Conservationists began to restore the keeper’s quarters and eventually, the tower itself. In 1990, the group opened the lighthouse to the public and until recently, it was the only North Carolina lighthouse available for climbing. In 2001, the light was declared U.S. government surplus. Last month, after a lengthy application and appeal process, the conservationist group was awarded the deed.