Aquinnah voters will decide at a special town meeting on Tuesday whether the town should move forward with plans to take ownership of and relocate the historic Gay Head Light. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the Aquinnah town hall. Voters will take up two separate warrants, beginning with a seven-article warrant that failed to meet quorum in November, followed by a two-article warrant with questions about the lighthouse. Moderator Michael Hebert will preside over the special sessions. A quorum of 39 is required.
Voters will be asked to allow the town to proceed with the acquisition, restoration and relocation of the light. The historic tower, which dates back to 1856, will need to be moved in the next two years due to steady erosion at the Gay Head Cliffs.
The ownership transfer would come under the federal National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, which allows for lighthouses no longer considered mission critical to be declared surplus property. The lights are offered at no cost to eligible state or local governments, nonprofit entities, historic preservation groups or community development organizations. The Gay Head Light is expected to be designated as surplus property by the U.S. Coast Guard sometime in the next year, the first step in the process of transferring ownership to another entity.
Cong. William Keating appealed directly to the Coast Guard commandant in December, urging the Coast Guard to hurry its designation of lighthouse as surplus due to the increasing erosion at the cliffs. Though that has not yet happened, town leaders say they want to preempt the announcement and have voter approval in hand, ready for the application.
Should voters agree to proceed with the process, the town will need to write an application to the General Services Administration.
Early estimates last summer by consultants from International Chimney Co., a company that specializes in moving lighthouses, found that little land remained around the light on the ocean side and could make it logistically difficult to move the structure. The moving company estimated the total cost of moving and renovating the light at $1.5 to $3 million.
The Martha’s Vineyard Museum currently oversees the care of the lighthouse. The lighthouse will need to be fully restored and secured before it can be moved. Restoration of the lighthouse is estimated to cost $500,000, the museum director has said.
Voters also will be asked to approve spending $5,000 from the Community Preservation Act undesignated reserve fund to fund a feasibility study for the preservation of the structure. A 12-member town advisory committee has been meeting since early January to begin planning for the surplus designation and relocation. The group is now considering potential sites for the new location of the lighthouse, and will present their findings to the selectmen at a regularly-scheduled board meeting before the special town meeting.
But first voters will be asked to act on the postponed warrant from November. Articles include funding the town’s share of the Massachusetts Estuaries Project study for Menemsha and Squibnocket ponds, a transfer of $16,700 from the town stabilization fund. Town share was originally $31,700, but was cut in half, thanks to a $15,000 contribution from Aquinnah resident Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg. The donation comes from an agreement with the town when the family subdivided its 375-acre property in 2006 for estate planning reasons.
The study is being conducted by marine scientists from the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, who are mapping and writing reports for 89 saltwater ponds and costal embayments throughout southeastern Massachusetts. Chilmark voters approved the town’s share of $31,000 for the study at the annual town meeting last April. The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) is also contributing.
Other articles to be voted on include $1,500 in Community Preservation Act money to restore and repair the cattle pound on State Road, and establishing a new reserve fund intended to pay for unused sick and vacation days for retired town employees. The remaining articles involve unpaid bills from the prior fiscal year.