Underscoring the wisdom of the old adage “Never look a gift horse in the mouth,” consider the strange three-year stewardship of the Penfield Reef Lighthouse off the coast of Fairfield Beach by Beacon Preservation, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Ansonia that had been selected to restore and run the historic property.
Last February, the Secretary of the Interior took back control of the Penfield Reef Lighthouse from Beacon, which sued in federal court, but abruptly withdrew the action in May, leaving behind a baffling legacy of curious, self-generated controversies that antagonized local, state and federal officials.
The property will be put up for auction by the federal government in the next few months, and the town of Fairfield has expressed interest in bidding even though times are tough, said Jennifer Carpenter, deputy chief of staff for the first selectman's office. After the federal government sought to divest itself of the two dozen or so lighthouses along the Connecticut coast beginning in 2000, the town and the Fairfield Historical Society announced that they could muster $200,000 toward taking control of the property.
But the National Park Service recommended Beacon, which had rehabbed and administered the Goose Rocks Lighthouse in Maine. The National Park Service officially handed over the Penfield lighthouse to the group at no cost in 2008.
Almost immediately, however, Beacon officials began arguing over interpretations of federal law concerning the so-called “bottomlands” beneath the lighthouse, built in 1874 atop a two-story keeper's residence. The lighthouse sits just over a mile offshore and is alleged to be haunted by a former keeper's (friendly) ghost.
In 2007, the Connecticut General Assembly had passed a law transferring the bottomlands to the town of Fairfield. This caused mistrust on Beacon's part, but town officials assured Beacon that they would convey the land to the state legislature, which would hand it over to the nonprofit.
“Surprisingly, although state legislation specifically tailored to allow Beacon to occupy the submerged lands was enacted, Beacon failed to ever avail itself of that legislation,” wrote federal lawyers defending the suit.
In 2009, Carol Chirico, assistant regional counsel at the General Services Administration in Boston, which brokered the land transfer, wrote a letter to Beacon offering to assist them, but Beacon never responded.
In its lawsuit, Beacon pressed forth with its claim that only the federal government could transfer the deed for the bottomlands to Beacon, not the state of Connecticut or the town of Fairfield. Since this did not happen, Beacon refused to maintain or repair the lighthouse.
In court papers, the feds countered that “There was a remedy available to Beacon for over a year: to work with the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection to obtain the lease to the submerged lands. Despite having the necessary legislative authority and the ‘short-term solution' of a yearlong lease from the Coast Guard, Beacon nevertheless refused to negotiate with the State and consummate a lease.”
After years of acrimony, Beacon has pulled up its stakes. “We're letting it go at this point,” said Keith Murray, assistant general counsel for the organization. “We're not interested in the media attention or the lighthouse; we're just done.”Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun