Nobska Point Light, the Woods Hole lighthouse that ranks among the Cape’s most scenic destinations, could be on the block, as the Coast Guard looks to find a new caretaker for the weathered property.
The Coast Guard may designate the historic beacon and an adjoining residence excess property after an inspection turned up $550,000 in needed repairs. The Coast Guard will continue to maintain the light itself, but would otherwise yield responsibility to another owner, part of a broad effort over the past decade to transfer the historic signals.
Under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, the federal government must offer lighthouses free of charge to towns, nonprofit groups, or other public agencies. If none steps forward, an auction is held, allowing private citizens a chance to buy the beacons.
In Woods Hole, where the lighthouse is a beloved part of the landscape, news of the Coast Guard’s plans have sparked keen interest in acquiring it.
“This is a valued landmark,” said Jay Zavala, president of the Falmouth Chamber of Commerce. “It’s one of the anchors of the community.”
Community leaders predict that residents will be eager to preserve the cherished landmark, despite the high cost of repairs, and that a nonprofit group will ultimately step forward. With fund-raising, the lighthouse could be refurbished and potentially be made into a museum, enhancing its tourist appeal.
Catherine Bumpus, co-president of the Woods Hole Community Association, said town officials and community leaders are closely following the process. Given the affection for Nobska in Woods Hole and beyond, protecting the lighthouse is a priority, she said.
“People have a real attachment,” she said. “There’s something just lovely about it.”
Couples are married on the lighthouse lawn, she said, and the Falmouth Road Race runs beside it. Warm weather brings a procession of far-flung visitors, eager to see a classic New England lighthouse up close.
“It’s iconic,” she said. “Nobska is special because you can walk right up to it.”
Whoever acquires the lighthouse, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in the 1980s, would have to preserve it, Bumpus said.
“Any sale would come with historic preservation restrictions, so the look of it couldn’t change,” she said.
Julian Suso, Falmouth’s town manager, said the Coast Guard had not notified the town of its plans for the lighthouse. He also said it was too early to say whether the town might be interested in acquiring it. But given Nobska’s importance, it would not be surprising if a nonprofit took control, he said.
Lieutenant Joe Klinker, a spokesman for the Coast Guard, said the branch’s section commander had long lived in the home beside the lighthouse. But in June, when the former commander moved out, crews discovered extensive problems, from leaks to heating issues.
Given the prohibitive cost of repairs, the Coast Guard added the lighthouse to a list of properties that could be sold, even though it will remain a working beacon.
As word of the lighthouse’s potential sale has spread, community leaders have been actively discussing plans to protect it, Klinker said.
“It bodes well for the future of the light,” Klinker said. “Even if these properties are older, it doesn’t mean they don’t perform their function. And they are important to honoring the heritage of the communities and of the Coast Guard.”
Advances in navigation technology have reduced the need for lighthouses, and over the past decade the government has trimmed its inventory. Since 2000, more than 100 lighthouses have been sold or transferred: 66 have gone to preservationists, and 37 were sold at auctions to the public, according to the US General Services Administration.
In September, the rights to Graves Island Light Station, a 110-year-old lighthouse at the mouth of Boston Harbor, sold for nearly $1 million after a lengthy auction. The new owner said he plans to open the lighthouse to the public, possibly as an inn.
While some lighthouses have been bought privately and converted into homes or businesses, preservationists said they expected a nonprofit group to acquire Nobska.
“It’s almost a symbol for the region,” said James Hyland, president of the Lighthouse Preservation Society in Dover, N.H. “Someone will step up before it goes out to the general public.”
Nonprofit groups must go through a rigorous application process to determine whether they can maintain the property, preservationists say.
Even if suitable buyers emerge, the sale could easily take months or even years.
“This is a process they are very cautious with,” Klinker said. “You’re talking about centuries of history.”