The Edgartown lighthouse, having outlived its mission as a beacon for ships, is on the verge of its next chapter as a town-owned landmark.
Edgartown selectmen signed off Monday on the town’s application to take stewardship of the 1875 lighthouse perched a quarter-mile out in Edgartown harbor.
In May, the town learned that the U.S. General Services Administration, the current owners of the lighthouse, would look for a new owner for the lighthouse, which was deemed no longer critical to the U.S. Coast Guard.
At the time, the selectmen concurred that the town should apply for stewardship. Through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, decommissioned lighthouses are offered at little or no cost to eligible state and local governments, nonprofit organizations and historic preservation groups. If no eligible group comes forward, the lighthouse is auctioned off.
On Monday, the town’s bid to own the lighthouse took a large step forward as selectmen signed thick application binders prepared by town administrator Pamela Dolby.
While ownership might change hands, little else would change at the lighthouse. Since 1993, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum has been licensed as stewards of the lighthouse, an arrangement the town intends to continue.
While not much will change, “now the town is secure in knowing it’s always going to belong to us,” Mrs. Dolby said.
“The Light means something to everyone who visits or resides in Edgartown. It is our history,” the executive summary of the application said.
In past years, the town put money toward restoring and improving the lighthouse: in April 2007, town meeting voted to spend $250,000 in Community Preservation Act funds on restoration, including adding a spiral staircase, and in April 2008 the town spent $21,000 for the reconstruction of a railing and a door.
The museum also oversees care of the East Chop Light and the Gay Head Light, for which efforts are underway to expedite a similar transfer from the federal government to the towns.
Last fall, the town of Aquinnah learned that the government might look to transfer ownership of the Gay Head Light in the next few years. But with erosion bringing the lighthouse ever closer to the edge of a cliff, Cong. William Keating last month called for the government to expedite the transfer so the town can look into moving the lighthouse.
Meanwhile in Edgartown, the application was scheduled to be sent on Tuesday, ahead of the Jan. 10 deadline. The government has 60 days to respond, Mrs. Dolby said, and town meeting will have to vote to approve the final application.
She said she thought the cost of the lighthouse would be about $1.
There were other interested parties: Mrs. Dolby said another town had expressed interest in taking the lighthouse and relocating it, and a group in Arkansas had wanted to take the lighthouse apart and bring it down to that state.
Mrs. Dolby said that she believes the other parties backed out when Edgartown expressed their own desire to keep the lighthouse.
If the lighthouse had been moved, it wouldn’t have been the first time. The original Edgartown lighthouse, built in 1828, was destroyed in a 1938 hurricane. It was replaced by the Essex Light from Ipswich, a cast-iron lighthouse that was dismantled and shipped by barge to its current home in Edgartown, surrounded by a town-owned beach fronting the outer harbor where sailboats and fishermen pass by, and piping plovers and roseate terns nest.
The lighthouse is also home to a Children’s Memorial started in 1997, with cobblestones surrounding the base of the lighthouse engraved with the names of children who have died.
Almost 12,000 people visited the Edgartown lighthouse in 2012, 4,300 in August alone. Since 2008, the lighthouse has had 52,847 visitors, according to data included in the town’s application.