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Who will own the jewel of the Rhode Island coast?

The Watch Hill Lighthouse, located on a 4-acre tongue of land sticking out into the sea from the southeasternmost tip of Rhode Island, is certainly among the most spectacular coastal landmarks in New England.

And because the Coast Guard has declared it excess property, its future is suddenly uncertain.

The tradition of a lighthouse here guiding mariners safely past the perilous rocks of Watch Hill Reef dates to the 18th century, and the peninsula's storied history includes the operation of a full lifesaving station once responsible for bringing many a shipwreck victim safely ashore during raging storms.

Today, the current lighthouse, which dates to 1856, is still a functioning navigation aid to mariners, a lit sentinel between Block Island and Fishers Island sounds, where great volumes of water wash by, with the alternating tides, at enormous speed.

From here, Rhode Island has long handed off mariners to New York and Connecticut, a great watery gate between the sea and coastal waters.

It is also fine real estate, at the edge of a neighborhood of seaside mansions with price tags that can hit eight figures. Pop star Taylor Swift is a neighbor.

The Coast Guard's declaring the property as excess begins a long process to find a new owner, with the first in line being local governments, the town or state, or nonprofits.

Prospective proprietors must fill out lengthy applications asserting how they would manage the property, allowing the Coast Guard access to its light, maintaining the historic buildings and assuring a public use.

If no suitable owner is found among that group of nonprofits and governments, the search, conducted by the National Park Service, could turn to finding a private owner.

My first instinct, in hearing of the start of bidding, would be to encourage the state or town of Westerly to step forward and take responsibility. What better way to ensure the public always has access to this important property than to make sure the public owns it.

The state is expected to seek ownership of the Beavertail Lighthouse in Jamestown, R.I., which also has been declared excess, because it already maintains a large park surrounding that light.

Public access to the Watch Hill Lighthouse is more precarious, given that the road leading to the peninsula is privately owned, very narrow and snakes down the hill through a glamorous neighborhood of seaside mansions.

It is hard to imagine how it would become a park, given the substantial, bankrolled opposition that surely would arise.

Still, the Watch Hill Lighthouse Keepers Association, a nonprofit that has been maintaining the property with a lease from the Coast Guard since 1986, has done a good job of both keeping the property open to the public and accommodating the neighbors. Its lease with the Coast Guard broadly requires public access but has no specific requirements regarding things like hours, days and times of the year.

The association had to place some limits on visitors during the pandemic summer, when the property was overwhelmed. But it has always remained open to walkers who can make their way up the hill from the village.

Cars are allowed to drive out all year, and before the summer of COVID-19, visitors over 65 and with handicap stickers could drive out during the busy season and use the large parking lot.

Andrew Barber, the association vice president, a Watch Hill native who runs a car repair shop in a property that has been in his family for generations, said his group plans to file an application for ownership of the light, despite the daunting responsibility it would entail.

The association, which maintains a small historical exhibit on the property, including a display of the original Fresnel lens, has no full-time staff and exists largely through the work of volunteers. After years of fundraising and spending money on renovations and repairs, it has assets of about $1.2 million.

Substantial renovations lie ahead, Barber told me on a tour of the light tower Friday. The top of the tower, made of steel, needs to be rebuilt, and the lining of the circular brick stairway needs to be repointed.

It occurs to me that, in an ideal world, the town could apply and become the owner of this significant property, ensuring forever public ownership of Rhode Island's coastal jewel.

And the town would be wise to continue the association's careful stewardship, a partnership that would guarantee local ownership and input for future generations.

The people of the town should look closely at this opportunity, the likes of which only come around every few centuries.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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