Coast Guard Accepts Bids for Sale of Lighthouses

Three Connecticut lighthouses that went up for auction this summer could have new owners in the next year, including one in New Haven Harbor that could be turned into a marine sciences research center for middle school, high school and college students.

Beacon Preservation Inc. submitted the high bid of $180,002 for Southwest Ledge Lighthouse off New Haven, according the Ansonia-based nonprofit. Beacon promotes the preservation of lighthouses and runs marine science programs for schoolchildren.

The General Services Administration, which handled the auction for the U.S. Coast Guard, also accepted bids of $282,345 for Penfield Reef Lighthouse off Bridgeport and $130,000 for Greens Ledge Lighthouse near Norwalk.

The GSA declined to identify the high bidders or comment on planned uses for the beacons, each of them more than a century old. But Beacon confirmed plans to restore and jointly use the New Haven Harbor lighthouse for research with Southern Connecticut State University.

"We want to create a place where a wide variety of people can learn about the coastal environments of Long Island Sound," Frank LaBanca, Beacon's director of academics, said Monday. "We come at this with the broad goal of understand Long Island Sound's role in Connecticut."

LaBanca said the lighthouse won't be a museum but a working research center with experiments examining water quality, plants and other aquatic life.

The sales of Southwest Ledge -- built in 1876 and dominated by a two-story mansard-style roof with Second-Empire-style details -- and the two other lighthouses won't close until the bidders have negotiated leases with the submerged land under the lighthouses. The negotiations generally take six to 12 months.

The purchase of Southwest Ledge was financed with funds raised from the Werth Family Foundation, whose president, Peter J. Werth, founded ChemWerth, a pharmaceutical company; billionaire philanthropists Karen Pritzker and Michael Vlock of Branford, and others.

Southwest Ledge could welcome its first students in fall 2017. Beacon estimates that restoration could runs $50,000 to $100,000, assuming that some materials and labor will be donated.

Five years ago, Beacon pursued a similar plan for Penfield Reef, but the deal fell apart because the state had not established procedures for leasing submerged lands under lighthouses. Legislation has since been passed.

Penfield Reef was again up for auction this year, after $1.2 million in repairs needed after storm Sandy caused heavy damage to the lighthouse. Penfield Reef was constructed in 1874 to resemble a two-story, Second-Empire-style house.

Already in bad shape when Sandy struck the Connecticut coast, renovations to Penfield Reef included buttoning up major leaks, installation of a new roof, the addition of sturdy stainless steel doors and replacing brittle wood windows with architecturally accurate, hurricane resistant ones.

For more than a decade, the GSA has been seeking new owners for lighthouses. The beacons hold a prominent place in maritime history, warning seagoing vessels about dangerous reefs and shoals, but they are expensive to maintain and lack modern technology.

The new owners must agree to allowing the light and foghorn to continue to operate.

The National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act calls for a two-step process for transferring lighthouses. First, they are offered to nonprofits and public agencies, at no cost, if the buyer agrees to preserve it and use it for cultural or educational purposes. If no suitable organization is found, the second step is an auction to the general public.

All three lighthouses this year were in the second step.

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