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Feds take lighthouse stewardship from town

Stepping Stones Lighthouse, located off Kings Point, has

Stepping Stones Lighthouse, located off Kings Point, has been a North Hempstead asset since 2008, but budget constraints have slowed renovations that the town pledged in its 2006 application. (Sept. 13, 2011) Credit: Chris Ware

The Town of North Hempstead, long under fire by the federal government for neglecting to maintain a historic lighthouse it took over under a U.S. program in 2008, appears to be losing ownership of the structure.

On Thursday, the U.S. General Services Administration informed Town Supervisor Jon Kaiman that the agency has found a new steward for the Stepping Stones Lighthouse in Long Island Sound, about 1,600 yards off Kings Point, and asked the town to turn over its keys so the new steward could attempt to secure the lighthouse ahead of Sandy.

But Kaiman said he wrote a response to the GSA on Friday, saying the town could not allow unauthorized people access to the lighthouse, which remains active, due to liability and other concerns, and asked that the matter be reviewed.

"We've received no documentation providing any type of legal authority to put someone on town property without proper procurement, [or] insurance coverage," Kaiman said.

The new steward identified in the GSA letter is Pam Setchell, president of the Northeast Lighthouse Preservation Group Ltd. and the Huntington Lighthouse Preservation Society.

Before deciding to assume ownership, Setchell said, she is waiting to be let into the lighthouse to survey what has happened since she toured it a year ago. That inspection probably won't happen until after the storm.

The town was awarded the lighthouse under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act in 2008, signing an agreement with the GSA and the National Park Service. Three years later, the park service told the town that it was not making progress on preserving the lighthouse, and that the lighthouse had deteriorated since the town received it.

In August, the park service informed the town that because it had neither maintained the lighthouse nor made it available to the public for educational purposes, the park service would recommend to the GSA that the lighthouse be transferred to a new owner, and that the GSA would coordinate with the town for the transfer.

Kaiman said the town had made clear to the federal government that the town was not prepared to spend its own money repairing the 1870s lighthouse, and would instead seek grants and partners for the restoration. While no restoration work has been done, the town fixed an access ladder to the property for about $10,000. Kaiman said the town also solicited bids and had planned to fix a hole in the roof this year.

"At the time we acquired this, we made it clear that we're taking on this responsibility because somebody needs to," Kaiman said. He said the town repeatedly inspected the property and concluded the problems were not enough "to cause any immediate damage," even from the impending storm.

But Setchell said when she toured the lighthouse a year ago, she was dismayed by a nearly 3-foot hole in the floor, showing the water below, the cracks in the foundation and the hole in the roof exposing rotting wood support beams.

She estimated it would take more than $2 million to restore the lighthouse, and several hundred thousand dollars immediately just to seal the building against water intrusion.

"They built these things to withstand horrible storms," Setchell said. "They're not meant to stand for eternity without being cared for."

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