In the days long before radar and GPS dominated navigation in Southold Town waters, seven offshore lighthouses warned mariners of the dangers that lay ahead along rocky shores and in treacherous passages.
Once the property of the United States government, the beacons that stretch from Orient Point Lighthouse to Latimer Reef Lighthouse — which is almost as close to Rhode Island as it is to Fishers Island — have nearly all been sold or gifted to private entities or individuals.
But what does one actually do with a lighthouse?
For most organizations, lighthouse maintenance and efforts to keep it open to the public have been top priorities. Race Rock Lighthouse, southwest of Fishers Island, was gifted to the New London Maritime Society in late 2009. And Orient Long Beach Bar Light, off the western tip of Orient Beach State Park and commonly known as “Bug Light,” is overseen by the East End Seaport Museum & Marine Foundation.
At least one private buyer, whose plans have until now been unannounced, also hopes to let the public in to catch a glimpse of his recent purchase.
Connecticut businessman Fred Plumb, who purchased Little Gull Island in October 2012, has begun the process of trying to open its lighthouse to the public. He’s collaborating in that effort with Plum Island employee David Henry, whose family has worked on area waters for generations
“After owning it for a short time, [Mr. Plumb] realized the history behind it was so big that it wasn’t really something he wanted to alter or change,” said Mr. Henry, who works with the Plum Island marine fleet and describes himself as a “fourth-generation mariner.”
“He wants it restored and preserved,” he said.
Not all private lighthouse owners are interested in welcoming the public, however. Notable among these is inventor Dean Kamen, who purchased North Dumpling Island off Fishers Island — and with it North Dumpling Lighthouse — in the late 1980s for a reported $2.5 million. At one point, Mr. Kamen even declared North Dumpling a nation unto itself, according to several media reports, apparently signing a non-aggression pact with former President George H.W. Bush.
Other lighthouse owners’ intentions are less clear. Scott Phillips, principal for Latimer Lighthouse LLC, purchased Southold’s easternmost light in 2010 for $225,000. Nothing has been written about it since.
The Latimer and North Dumpling lights are the only two currently on Southold’s tax rolls, generating total revenue of about $7,000 annually for the town. Other privately owned lighthouses will join the tax rolls as their deeds are recorded with the county.
The most recent lighthouse transfer was Orient Point Lighthouse, better known locally as the “Coffee Pot.” Although the federal government sold it in 2014, according to the General Services Administration, the deed was not recorded in Suffolk County until this past summer. The buyer is listed as Orient Light, LLC, whose principal is Plant, a New York City company headed by artist Randy Polumbo.
Neither Mr. Polumbo nor Mr. Phillips responded to requests seeking comment.
According to Supervisor Scott Russell, islands like Little Gull and North Dumpling are probably not zoned; however, covenants on the deeds likely restrict what is and isn’t allowed on the parcels.
“If you read the covenants that are required on the acquisition, they are required to maintain these as a functional lighthouse, provide access to the government at any time,” said Mr. Russell. “It’s so restrictive that I don’t envision uses that would be all that much of an impact on them.”
The owners of these lighthouses, though, don’t matter quite as much to Ted Webb as the history behind them. Last summer, Mr. Webb began giving lighthouse tours twice a week through Cross Sound Ferry, out of its New London port. The tours were so popular that Cross Sound will expand them to six times per week in mid-season next summer.
According to Mr. Webb, Southold’s waters contain more lighthouses than those of any other township in the country. That distinction defined the days of his youth, when he and his friends would take their small boats out to the “Coffee Pot” light.
Mr. Webb currently sits on the town’s Historic Preservation Commission, which recently wrote to the owners of Bug Light, Little Gull, Race Rock and North Dumpling asking if they’d like to join the town’s historic landmarks registry, which currently includes about 250 parcels across the town. As of last week, according to commission chairman James Garretson, no one had responded.
Mr. Henry, however, said he’s pursuing a permit through the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Environmental Conservation to restore a broken dock on Little Gull Island and plans to meet with town leaders, including the Historic Preservation Commission, in the months ahead.