Graves Light sits on a rocky ledge in the middle of Boston Harbor, surrounded by water.
Since purchasing the lighthouse at a government auction seven years ago, Dave Waller has poured time and money into restoring it. The only way to get out there is by boat; the nearest shoreline is miles away, and when he bought it, the Coast Guard said the lighthouse did not belong to any city or town.
That’s why Waller was shocked when, out of the blue, he received a property tax bill from the town of Hull last year.
“I called the assessor’s office,” Waller said. “They just annexed us.”
Since then, he’s been locked in a legal battle with the town to prove that the sea-swept ledge that the 115-year-old lighthouse was built upon is not part of Hull.
Waller said he’s not trying to evade taxes; it’s a matter of principle.
“If we were legally within the boundaries, then of course we’d pay taxes," said Waller. "The tax part is secondary to the annexation issue.”
Hull never tried to levy real estate taxes on the lighthouse before. From 1903 up until 2013, Graves Light had been the property of the federal government. When Waller bought it at auction in 2013 for $933,888, he received an examination of title commissioned by the Coast Guard that stated that the “property is not located within the corporate limits of any municipality.”
But the town didn’t budge. So now the matter is in Land Court.
James B. Lampke, the town counsel for Hull, said he has 19th century maps and other documents that show the lighthouse is located in Hull.
“They claim that it’s not in any jurisdiction," said Lampke. “We claim that it is. If it’s not located in Hull, where is it? We say that it’s located in Hull, and if it’s not in Hull, it has to be located in some jurisdiction.”
Lampke said it doesn’t matter that Hull didn’t levy taxes on the property before 2019, when the town mailed Waller his first tax bill.
“The law requires that assessors assess all property within their boundaries, and that’s what the assessors have done here,” said Lampke. “The fact that it wasn’t done for a couple years isn’t pertinent.”
Lampke said the lighthouse also should be subject to Hull’s building regulations, and will need permits and inspections of the work that’s been done so far. In September, Hull asked the court to issue a temporary restraining order for Waller to stop renovating the lighthouse or pay a $25,000 penalty to the town for every day that he’s in violation.
Waller sees it differently.
Waller, who partnered with philanthropist Bobby Sager to restore Graves Light, said the work they’ve done on the lighthouse has been subject to oversight by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, the Coast Guard, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and other regulatory agencies.
They’ve meticulously restored the inside of the lighthouse and made it into a livable home and completely rebuilt the footbridge that connects to the former oil house, which has been converted into a sun-filled guest house. The restoration project has taken a long time, and they continue to post photos and updates on their website, www.graveslightstation.com.
Construction of Graves Light began in 1903 and it was completed in 1905. It gets its name from a rocky ledge that was named after Thomas Graves, vice admiral of John Winthrop’s fleet and an early trader in Colonial Massachusetts.
The 113-foot tower, which was made from granite that was quarried in Rockport, is only accessible via a 40-foot ladder.
After the last lightkeeper vacated the property in the 1970s, the lighthouse sat empty for more than 40 years. The government offered it to surrounding municipalities, but none wanted it, and so it was put up for auction. That’s when Waller and Sager entered the picture.
Their restoration of the lighthouse was recently honored with a 2020 Boston Preservation Alliance award.
Peter A. Biagetti, an attorney who represents Waller and Sager, said the lighthouse continues to operate as a fog and light station for the Coast Guard, and that Waller and Sager have been working hard to preserve the structure.
“He and Bobby put a lot of money and effort into it, and along the way got approval from regulators,” he said.
Biagetti said the case is anything but typical (”I’ve not seen anything like it,” he said), and they have plenty of documentation that shows that the lighthouse is not in any municipality.
“We’ve seen no authoritative basis from the town to back up its claim," he said. “[Graves Light] is 9 miles out there and it’s a ledge. ... It wasn’t until they got that first tax bill in the spring in 2019 that Hull came knocking.
“It’s not the typical case for settlement. This is a yes or no decision: Is it within the town of Hull or not? It’s clear to us that it’s not.”
Lampke disagrees, and says the lighthouse should be under Hull’s jurisdiction.
“This is not about the money," said Lampke. "It is about the fact that the Town has certain statutory duties, such as assessing property within its boundaries and we can’t ignore that. If it is not within Hull, then Hull has no interest in taxing them or requiring permits.”
The court has asked both sides to consider the possibility of resolving the issue through mediation, and a status conference is scheduled for June 29.
Emily Sweeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney and on Instagram @emilysweeney22.