For 30 days, no one offered to buy this Chesapeake Bay lighthouse.
Then the first bid came in. And a second. And soon there was a bidding war for a lighthouse that can’t be used as a home or rental property, sits in a Navy-controlled “danger area,” and will cost a substantial amount of money to maintain in accordance with specific preservation standards.
The five potential buyers upped the $15,000 starting price for the Hooper Island Lighthouse to the winning bid on Sept. 22 of $192,000. The auction closed the next day after 24 hours without a single competing offer.
The Hooper Island Lighthouse’s new owner, whose identity remains private until final documentation is signed within 45 days of the sale date, will be required to maintain the lighthouse as an active aid to navigation for the U.S. Coast Guard, preserve it in line with historic standards and sign a memorandum of agreement with the Navy that designates when it can be accessed, said Will Powell, a spokesman for the U.S. General Services Administration.
“We’ve had a lot of calls and a lot of interest from folks in this property, and we just started explaining to them … this is what you’re taking on with it,” Powell said. “It is a unique opportunity. And there are people out there that love lighthouses.”
Since 2000 — the year the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act took effect — the GSA has transferred about 148 lighthouses. That’s 82 no-cost transfers to public entities, such as nonprofit organizations, and 66 through public sales that have brought in more than $8 million. All proceeds, beyond the cost of sale, are returned to federal agencies and the Treasury, Powell said.
Three lighthouses in the Florida Keys were auctioned earlier this year and “had very eager bidders,” with the final prices ranging from $415,000 to $860,000, Powell said.
But this particular lighthouse, affectionately called the “sparkplug” by locals, is best described by what it can’t offer a new owner.
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The lighthouse is in the middle of the bay, three to four miles west of Middle Hooper Island in Dorchester County, and has no nearby dock at which a boat can moor, meaning any visitors would need to navigate waves and weather to tie the boat to the lighthouse’s outer ladder and climb up.
The property can’t be converted into a unique Airbnb or vacation home. Even if it could, it would be a tremendous undertaking as there is no water, sewer, electricity or gas. What was once a kitchen area is now empty.
An overnight stay is also complicated by the hazardous materials inside the structure, including lead-based paint, asbestos, benzene and a host of other dangerous substances, according to a 2019 inspection report.
Whenever the new owner decides to work on the lighthouse — which also has issues with erosion and paint that has come off from age and exposure to wind and salt — they’re required to communicate with the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division of the Navy. The lighthouse is in the northeast corner of a “surface danger zone,” meaning it’s within the test range where the NAWCAD can release nonexplosive ordnance such as practice bombs, inert missiles and rockets from aircraft.
Owning and maintaining this lighthouse was even too difficult for the U.S. Lighthouse Society, a national organization with more than 3,000 members and the lighthouse’s previous owner. The federal government, which has been looking to offload the lighthouse since 2017, auctioned it on the organization’s behalf and decided to open bids to the public after it exhausted other options.
Greg Krawczyk, vice president of the Chesapeake chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, was glad to hear someone finally bought the lighthouse.
“It now has a better chance of maybe being saved and restored,” Krawczyk said, adding that large price tag is a good sign. “Somebody had money; that’s what you need.”