North Hempstead does little at lighthouse

Stepping Stones Lighthouse off shore north west of

Stepping Stones Lighthouse off shore north west of Kings Point Park in Great Neck, is now controlled by North Hempstead. Built in the late 1800's, the town is now considering plans for restoration. (Sept. 13, 2011) Photo Credit: Chris Ware

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Three years after taking over the historic Stepping Stones Light from the federal government, the Town of North Hempstead has done little to fulfill its pledge to preserve, restore and educate the public about the building.

The inaction may put the town in violation of its agreement with the National Park Service and the General Services Administration, which manages federal property.

Under the agreement, ownership of the 1870s lighthouse could be revoked if terms of the transfer aren't met. Such a revocation has not occurred in the 11-year history of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act.

The Second Empire-style structure, 1,600 yards off Kings Point in Long Island Sound, was awarded to North Hempstead in 2008.

In its 2006 application to take over the lighthouse, the town pledged to seek grants and work with partners to restore and open the building to the public. Repair and restoration costs were estimated at $2.2 million to $3.4 million, with annual maintenance of about $20,000.

But no restoration work has taken place, and the lighthouse is closed.

"You get a really, really bad winter, one of these days you may not see a green beacon out there," said Pamela Setchell, president of Huntington Harbor Lighthouse Preservation Society, who has toured Stepping Stones.

Town Supervisor Jon Kaiman said building department employees consider the structure sound and not needing repairs. He also said budget concerns took precedence over repairing the structure.

"Maintaining the lighthouse has not been our primary function or a priority," Kaiman said.

If federal authorities think another entity is better equipped to take care of Stepping Stones, "so be it," he said.

North Hempstead officials on Sept. 16 reported to the park service that no major repairs have been required and that town employees make monthly visits to clean the exterior and inspect the interior. The report was filed one year late and did not contain financial details or photos.

The report is under review, park service spokesman Phil Sheridan said.

If the agency believes the town is not adhering to the agreement, it can notify the GSA, which could decide to take back the lighthouse.

"I think everybody feels for what communities go through in these economic times . . . but the covenants are the covenants, and we have to make sure they're followed," Sheridan said.

For generations, lighthouses have been a symbol of Long Island, reflecting its seafaring history and serving as tourist destinations.

"Lighthouses represent a connection to our past when they served as welcoming beacons to approaching ships and as a protection from Long Island's dangerous shoreline," said Kristen Matejka, director of marketing at the Long Island Convention & Visitors Bureau. "They now also serve as a place where visitors can explore our history and enjoy the scenic shoreline."

Stepping Stones is one of 76 lighthouses deeded to communities and groups since the preservation law was enacted in 2000. None has been taken back, a GSA spokeswoman said.

"We'd like to see the lighthouses preserved because they're a very unique and interesting part of maritime history that people have seen for generations," Sheridan said.

Six historic lighthouses around Long Island have been assigned new stewardship or are being made available for takeover.

Stepping Stones rises from a rock foundation 49 feet above sea level. The red brick structure is surrounded by a chain-link fence and weeds.

Inside, a large crack is visible in the basement floor. On the higher levels, windows are boarded up and a portion of the chimney is crumbling.

Setchell, who recently toured Stepping Stones with a foundation expert to advise North Hempstead, said a basement hole reveals the water below. The foundation is cracking and the tower cupola appears to be supported on only three of four sides, she said.

On North Hempstead's application to take over the lighthouse, the town said the Science Museum of Long Island would provide educational programming and the Great Neck Park District would immediately place a binocular viewer to see the lighthouse from its Steppingstone Park. Neither has happened.

"There's been no talk about money or plans going forward as far as the park district is aware," said Michele Siegel, the district's publicist.

The town also said it would have staff pursue grants. None has been received.

And the town failed to erect a sign saying the lighthouse is a donation from the United States government for preservation and public use, which the agreement requires to be posted within three months of taking it over.

The Huntington lighthouse, which Setchell's group operates under a 30-year lease signed with the Park Service in the late 1980s, is seeking to take over the deed permanently as part of the lighthouse preservation act. The Huntington group manages its lighthouse through a combination of grants, volunteers and donations of services, work and money.

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