The U.S. government has accepted bids on two Connecticut lighthouses that it put up for sale this summer and is close to accepting a third in an unusual chapter in the Nutmeg State’s maritime and real estate histories.
This summer marked the first time that three Connecticut lighthouses were on the auction block at the same time.
“These lighthouses offer a unique view into our coastal history and should remain preserved for years to come,” said Robert Zarnetske, a former Norwich city manager who is the New England regional administrator for the U.S. General Services Administration, which conducted the auctions.
The highest bid was $282,345 for the Penfield Reef Light off the coast of Fairfield, according to information obtained from the GSA. The auction closed Oct. 10 and the bid is pending government acceptance, Boston-based GSA spokesman Patrick Sclafani said.
Severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy four years ago, the U.S. Coast Guard restored Penfield Reef so it could be sold at auction. It went on sale July 12 with a minimum bid requirement of $100,000. There were five bidders on the property, built in 1874, Sclafani said.
The other two properties have had their highest bids accepted by the government, Sclafani said.
Among six bids for Southwest Ledge Light in New Haven Harbor, the highest was $180,000, he said. The auction closed Sept. 2. Built in 1876, the property went on sale July 1 with a minimum bid requirement of $25,000.
Among four offers for Greens Ledge Light near Norwalk, the highest bid was $150,000, Sclafani said. The auction closed Sept. 15. The property, built in 1901, was put up for sale on June 10 with a minimum bid of $5,000.
The properties were sold on the GSA Auctions website and were available only to registered bidders.
Names of the winning bidders will not be released until the sales are completed, Sclafani said. He expects closings within six months. Sales are contingent upon lease arrangements for land underneath the lighthouses. Those are handled by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, he said.
An increasing number of lighthouses in Connecticut and elsewhere are being transferred to private hands. The sales are part of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, which became law in 2000. More than 120 lighthouses have been sold or transferred out of federal ownership, which has saved taxpayers millions of dollars, the GSA said in a press release announcing the sale of the three Connecticut facilities.
Two other Connecticut lighthouses were sold by the GSA last year. Saybrook Breakwater Light of Old Saybrook, built in 1886, sold for $290,000 after receiving seven bids in an auction that closed on Sept. 1, 2015. Peck Ledge Light of Norwalk, which began operating in 1906, went for $235,000 in an auction that had six bidders and closed on Sept. 15 of last year.
No other Connecticut lighthouses are being considered for sale at present, Sclafani said. Connecticut is home to 20 lighthouses.
The preservation act requires that the lighthouses be offered to municipalities and nonprofit organizations before going on the auction block.
The act “has been a tremendous program for getting these lighthouses into the hands of those who will preserve and protect them,” Sclafani said in an interview with Crain’s Connecticut. “Our job is to find good stewards for these historic lighthouses and we’re accomplishing that.”
The GSA partners with the National Park Service and the Coast Guard on lighthouse transfers in New England as well as New York, New Jersey, the Great Lakes and Puerto Rico.
Most of the lighthouses are on the National Register of Historic Places, which limits what their owners can do to them. All three Connecticut lighthouses offered for sale this summer are on the register.
The preservation act calls for money from the sales to go the Coast Guard’s aid-to-navigation fund, which pays for the upkeep of the lighthouses including purchases of fog horns, lights, battery cells and solar panels. The Coast Guard remains firmly attached to the lighthouses.
“They help with navigation,” said Chief Petty Officer 3rd Class Nicole Barger, who works in the communications department at the Coast Guard Academy in New London. “We were using one just the other day in locating a channel. We definitely still use them.”
Lighthouses are assuming a greater role than when the preservation act was passed, noted Susan Tamulevich, executive director of the New London Maritime Society and Custom House Maritime Museum.
“They were considered a bit redundant back in 2000,” said Tamulevich, who is scheduled to give a talk titled “The History of Local Lighthouses” on Oct. 18 at Bill Library in Ledyard.
“Now people are finding out that GPS (global positioning systems) are not infallible. Systems can go down but lighthouses don’t,” she said.
Lighthouses were very popular places to visit in the late 19th and early 20th century, Tamulevich said, adding that they continue to fascinate people from all walks of life. The government would do well to keep their prestige intact and growing, she said.
“For them to be sold off like extra office furniture seems a bit demeaning,” Tamulevich said.
The Connecticut Office of Tourism’s website contains a Lighthouse Tour that includes the Old Lighthouse Museum in Stonington; DownEast Lighthouse Cruises that feature views of the New London Ledge and New London Harbor lighthouses; and the Sheffield Island Lighthouse at Norwalk.
Lighthouses are an important tourism ingredient, said Randy Fiveash, director of the Connecticut Office of Tourism. Of the state’s 20 lighthouses, 14 are still active, he said.
“Connecticut’s lighthouses are not only an essential part of our state’s past and present maritime identity, but also cherished landmarks that contribute to the beauty of our state’s shoreline and tourism industry,” he said.
Greens Ledge Light, located in Long Island Sound, is a spark-plug style facility that consists of a 39-foot circular foundation pier. Operated by the Coast Guard and used as a navigational aid, it also has a four-story circular keeper’s dwelling with a circular parapet and lantern.
Southwest Ledge Light is on the east side of the entrance to New Haven Harbor. It is a 45-foot, eight-sided cast iron lighthouse with a unique two-story mansard roof detailed in Second Empire style, according to the GSA release. It will remain an active navigation aid following its sale, GSA said.
Penfield Reef Light is in western Long Island Sound at the south side of the entrance to Black Rock Harbor. It is a 51-foot octagonal wood and granite structure with a black lantern and two floorkeeper’s quarters.