Published September 27. 2012 4:00AM Updated September 27. 2012 6:53PM
Environmental and historic preservation groups hoping to keep Little Gull Island from becoming private property have just 14 days left to put together a bid for a federal government auction.
The 1-acre island, which sits between Plum and Fishers islands in Long Island Sound, is among a group of former Coast Guard lighthouse properties being sold by the General Services Administration. Little Gull's 1869 granite tower lighthouse stands 81 feet high and includes an automated navigation light and horn blast every 15 seconds.
Both signals will continue to operate after the sale, and the Coast Guard will retain an easement for access and maintenance.
Thus far, there have been three bids on the island. The highest bid - $70,000 - was submitted last week. Bidding closes Oct. 10.
"I'm still very hopeful the pieces will fall together," said Leah Schmalz, director of legal and legislative affairs for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment - Save the Sound, one of the groups working on a partnership to acquire and protect the island. "It would be a shame to think $70,000 could stand in the way of this remaining public (land)."
Schmalz said her organization has no funds to purchase the island but is working to find grants, loans and donations.
Hoping to join with the Connecticut Fund for the Environment in the project is the New London Maritime Society. Director Susan Tamulevich said her organization registered with GSA to place a bid and is hoping the funds can be raised. The society would like to be caretakers of the historic lighthouse. It already owns New London Harbor Light and is working with another group to acquire Race Rock Light, southwest of Fishers Island.
"We'd love to have a partnership with conservation groups," she said.
GSA spokesman Patrick Sclafani said no information about bidders' identities or plans for the island will be disclosed before the close of the auction. Deed restrictions will require that the lighthouse be preserved.
GSA will award the property to the highest bidder, regardless of other criteria, he said. Government entities thus far are bypassing the chance to acquire Little Gull, leaving it to private nonprofit groups to take up the cause.
Scott Russell, town supervisor for Southold, N.Y., where the island is located, said the town is working on the preservation of the Orient Point lighthouse but has not made any efforts regarding the Little Gull property.
The New York Department of Environmental Conservation, for its part, is hopeful that the island will be preserved, "but we don't have any plans to purchase the property," department spokeswoman Lori Severino said. Given the island's size and location on a tidal estuary, potential use of the island for private development appears limited, she added.
"It would be very difficult to develop it," she said.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has been asked about acquiring the island or joining in a partnership with nonprofit groups seeking to own it, but will not do so, said Tylar Greene, spokeswoman for the service.
It would, however, consider helping private groups manage the wildlife habitat.
Meagan Racey, also with Fish & Wildlife, said the agency "recognizes the island's potential to support nesting seabirds, especially with its proximity to Great Gull Island, which supports the Northeast's largest concentration of endangered roseate terns.
"This area is also located in a critical foraging area for these birds, and the management and protection of this island could contribute to the larger island protection effort in this part of Long Island Sound."
Southwest of Little Gull is the 17-acre Great Gull Island, owned by the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The museum has conducted research projects since the 1940s on the Great Gull, which supports large populations of common and roseate terns.